It’s a rare tarot deck that doesn’t have a single fan of its charms, even if appreciation is limited to the deck’s creator or reserved for a particular purpose (such as esoteric study, self-reflection or divination). Generally, it’s the skill of the artist that garners the most interest followed by the accessibility of the symbolism and the excellence of the deck’s production values. Although the landscape tends to shift with every popular new release, a large percentage of dedicated enthusiasts in fact have “one deck to rule them all,” at least most of the time. Unless fanciful reconstitution of old standbys is your thing, you will most likely fall into one of three major camps, each of which has its signature iconic deck (or style) and a slew of pretenders to the throne. As long as there is money to be made, there will be no shortage of ambitious campaigns to unseat the king. That’s a good thing provided the creators’ motives aren’t strictly mercenary. More typically, another Waite-Smith knock-off simply joins the long, dreary line of a hundred others.
In the Thoth world, there is one 300-pound gorilla – the original in its various incarnations – and a small stable of admirable but marginally less imposing spin-offs. For me, as a long-time student of the 19th-century roots of the esoteric tarot, this will always be the “gold standard.” Not only did Lady Frieda Harris have the talent to make an indelible mark in the annals of tarot art, she had the remarkable patience to deal with Aleister Crowley’s ruthlessly exacting demands. It’s not an accident that a good many journeyman tarot readers who cut their teeth on the RWS deck soon develop the nagging impression that they “really should investigate” the Thoth. The spiritual ancestor of the Crowley and Harris watershed, the Golden Dawn model of which the Thoth is the most accomplished descendant, has in my opinion never been adequately rendered in color by a top-notch artist who hasn’t succumbed to a fatal compulsion to rethink the symbolism (I’m talking about you, Golden Dawn Temple Tarot).
In the realm of Rider-Waite-Smith and its myriad impersonators, the decks based on Pamela Colman Smith’s original line drawings have a death-grip on the top spot among the cognoscenti of traditional imagery, and which of several limited color palettes you prefer is a matter of individual taste. Purists will of course argue that the earliest decks (“Pam A, “Pam B,” etc.) are vastly superior to the creatively recolored modern versions. Those decks are unavailable to the average mortal, but U.S. Games has been busily trying to fill the void with a series of high-fidelity remakes. However, I believe the consensus is that the quest is far from over. Many people find the prototypical color scheme drab, and opt for a livelier alternative. For the purpose of public divination, I like the Centennial Edition with its muted tones, but the vivid Albano Waite (especially in its 1968 debut) holds a special place in my graphic designer’s heart.
Things aren’t nearly as clear-cut in the third major category, the Tarot de Marseille. Names like Conver, Noblet, Grimaud, Dodal, Chosson, Burdel, Payen, Madenie and Vieville are revered by scholarly types, and which of the somewhat crude woodblock printings you admire most is a consequence of finely-honed discrimination. The work of Yves Renaud and Wilfred Houdouin to reclaim the best of these historical decks in faithful facsimile editions is an inestimable boon to the tarot community, but most people who want to divine with the TdM seem to prefer “cleaner” but still classical versions like Houdouin’s “Millennium Edition,” the Conver Ben-Dov (CBD), the Japanese “ISIS” and the Noblet offering from Jean-Claude Fluornoy. Personally, although I don’t own many TdM decks, I find the CBD to be most to my liking.
Brief mention should be made of a couple of other specialty branches of historical deck production. One taps the much earlier emergence of some of the oldest tarot decks in existence, notably the Italian Soprafino and the Sola Busca (remarkable for its influence on Pamela Colman Smith). The other partakes of the so-called “Continental” school of esoteric symbolism exemplified by Etteilla and Oswald Wirth. Because they don’t adhere to generally-accepted modern assumptions for card-by-card interpretation, they seem to be of scant interest to those focused mainly on divination. In the second group, decks like the Tarot of the Holy Light, Dame Fortune’s Wheel, the Etteilla-based Book of Thoth Tarot (not to be confused with Crowley’s Thoth deck) and the 78-card expansion of Wirth’s original “Majors-only” deck have attempted to bring this model to a wider audience.