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.