One Deck to Rule Them All

I’ve long believed that for every reader there is one tarot deck that fits like a glove: skin-tight and perfectly responsive to every nuance of interpretation. While we might protest that we can read effectively with any deck, there is almost certainly one that stands out from the pack. We can all  recognize those that don’t quite measure up; we buy them with high hopes based on all the evidence we can gather short of actually holding them in our hands, and are then displeased to some extent with their various shortcomings, which can range anywhere from flimsy card stock to unappealing surface finish to awkward handling to annoying borders. Fortunately, outright disappointment with the visual imagery usually isn’t one of them in these times of internet access to scans of some or all of the cards in a deck. Sites like the German-language Albideuter (http://www.albideuter.de/) have authorization from  publishers to post full-deck displays, although their inventory is far from comprehensive or current. The few online tarot forums presently operating attempt to compensate with illustrated deck reviews, and deck creators typically have web sites to showcase their work. For the most part, the days of buying a deck “sight unseen” are behind us.

For me, the Thoth deck met my criteria for excellence in all meaningful ways for several decades. The twin superlatives of Crowley’s esoteric insights and Harris’s remarkable artistry have seldom if ever been equaled. But it isn’t quite the “Holy Grail” that it once was for reading purposes. Decks in the Thoth tradition like the Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus are vying for my favor with their updated artwork and immaculate presentation. It’s taking some time, but I no longer automatically reach for the Thoth at every reading opportunity. I’ve been considerably less impressed with the handful of Golden-Dawn-inspired decks out there, which for the most part forego superior artwork for elaborate symbolic content. That void may never be filled to my satisfaction, unless I hand-color a copy of Godfrey Dowson’s black & white  Hermetic Tarot.

Those who came up from the beginning with the Waite-Smith deck are well-served by numerous creative renderings of the original, which have included attempts by U.S. Games to replicate the visual impact of the earliest versions. I find myself turning to the Centennial Edition with increasing regularity, although the vivid, unconventional Albano Waite still holds a special place in my graphic-artist’s heart. Add the growing number of competent RWS “clones” to the mix and there is a cornucopia of worthy options. The challenge lies in finding the one perfect match in a crowded field that offers what amounts to an “embarrassment of riches.” Buying every one of them isn’t a reasonable alternative for most of us, so we do our best research and make our choices with crossed fingers. Right now I have my eyes on the independently-produced Pam’s Tarot, which appears to be a reproduction of the early “Pam A” deck (https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/pam-s-tarot-original-edition).

If I ever get my head around the Tarot de Marseille to the point I’m comfortable reading with it in all situations, a number of impressive facsimile reproductions of historical decks are available from Yves Renaud and Wilfried Houdouin at the Tarot of Marseille Heritage site (https://www.tarot-de-marseille-heritage.com/english/index.html). For the time being I’m contenting myself with the U.S. Games reissue of Yoav Ben-Dov’s Conver Ben-Dov (CBD) deck and its fine companion book. If I’m going to reach my goal, this deck will get me there in good style. For something less formal, the colorful Fournier and Hadar TdM decks are engaging diversions.

I find that, as my reading prowess continues to develop,  I’m buying far fewer decks and concentrating almost exclusively on those that provide the most compelling combination of “feel” and “function.” The true test is how well they perform right out of the box, with no preliminary study. While I occasionally revisit my older decks in the hope that I may have somehow missed their magic, I’ve discovered that my first impressions were almost invariably the most reliable measure of a deck’s overall credibility and long-term utility.

4 thoughts on “One Deck to Rule Them All

  1. Tarot has been in my life at various points over a 30 year period, and I have collected about 20 decks. I have never disposed of a deck, and maybe 10 have some value over-and-above being pretty or mildly interesting. I consider Thoth and Waite-Smith as essential with Thoth being my “if you had to pick just one deck” choice.

    There is some overlap between decks you mentioned and my own collection and preferences. I consider Waite-Smith a staple deck, and while I still have my first yellow box “Rider Tarot Deck,” I prefer the versions with more muted colors like the centennial and “original.” I have some I will use, but I have not found a Waite-Smith clone or derivative that I prefer to Smith’s art. Waite’s brilliance in illustrating the minors carried with it the limitation he could only depict one scene when each card has a range of meanings. For me, what I take as Waite’s mix of mnemonics and symbols often gets overextended or distorted by designers to the point it disrupts the balance or flow of the deck.

    I find that most so-called Thoth-based decks are really Book T decks and miss important points of Thoth – almost always in the majors and occasionally in the courts. On the plus side, Liber T is a relatively new Thoth addition for me, and Tabula Mundi is very new. Along with Rosetta, these are my only decks that do more than pay lip service to Thoth. I enjoy all three. Liber T can be a bit dark, and I can get distracted into pondering and researching the origins of its minor arcana images. Meleen’s work (Rosetta, Tabula Mundi) is some of the best I have found in my recent renewed interest in tarot. While she could rest on her laurels with Tabula Mundi, I will be interested if she decides to wade-in again.

    My regrets may be limited to one deck – Haindl. I like the aesthetics and design, and I want to use it but find it inaccessible. I could “cheat” and fall back on known meanings, but it feels disingenuous. So I am doomed to a cycle of putting it away long enough to forget why I put it away, taking it out only to be reminded, then back again.

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    • Thanks for weighing in. Regarding the Thoth majors, there are few (one could almost say “no”) deck creators who can hold a candle to Crowley and Harris for symbolic content; they were truly a matchless team. I’m ambivalent about many of the RWS minor cards, finding them too prosaic to carry the full weight of the meaning behind them. I tend to work up my own euphemisms (metaphors and analogies) using context-based free-association to replace the “canned” narrative vignettes the images present. I agree with you about Haindl; just couldn’t relate to it at all, although I understand there is a different, brighter version from the rather dour one I own. I found the Rohrig to be a worthy alternative, although I could only find the Spanish-language version at a reasonable price. I just bought Godfrey Dowson’s Hermetic Tarot, which looks like a Liber T/Thoth hybrid, and am looking forward to studying (and possibly reading) with it.

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  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I have heard of Rohrig but never considered it. From a brief image search, I’m not sure it’s right for me even if I could find one for the right price. I have Dowson’s Hermetic tarot. It is among my ten or so “main” decks. It’s also relatively new for me, and whether or not I read with it, I expect it to have study value.

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    • I call the Rohrig my “glam” deck for obvious reasons. I posted a deck interview here for it earlier (my “personality profile” assessment, although I don’t think decks are humanoid in the least). I found the Fool card to be worth the price of admission all by itself. That sometimes happens: with the Anna K it was the Strength card, and with the Victorian Romantic (if I ever get my hands on it) it will be the 9 of Swords.

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