Although I’m a trained graphic artist with the skills to do so, I don’t have the inclination or enthusiasm to tackle the monumental task of creating 78 individual works of art to populate my own tarot deck. But that doesn’t prevent me from having opinions as to how I might go about it. It is perhaps easiest to single out what I find most compelling about various previously-published decks and present a composite vision of my ideal pack.
First and foremost, the art has to be skillful and original, while maintaining contact with the symbolic imagery that represents the backbone of interpretive tradition. This doesn’t mean that it must emulate the Waite-Smith (RWS) model that so many people see as the standard-bearer for modern tarot artistry. I’m partial to the Thoth deck myself, with its stylized backgrounds and evocative color schemes. If there was ever a perfect blending of artistic and esoteric acumen in a work of consummate innovation and imagination, this is it. As the saying goes, it is “often imitated, never equaled.”
What my deck would not be is photo-realistic or overly digitized; I appreciate a painterly style of illustration. The colors must be reasonably vivid and not sludgy; the lively Albano-Waite RWS deck is an extreme example of the former, while the rather drab Haindl Thoth clone sits at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Thoth itself walks a middle road that invokes a meditative atmosphere.
It goes without saying that it would have scenic or semi-scenic minor cards rather than non-representational “pips,” but they would not fall victim to the prosaic blandness that mars many of the RWS versions. The Thoth will always be the standout among semi-scenic decks for its crafty merger of suit emblems (similar in layout to the Tarot de Marseille pip cards) with pictorial elements that broadly sketch rather than exhaustively detail the outer symbolism of the cards.
The deck would be neither too large nor too small in edge-to-edge dimensions. Large-format decks are awkward to handle with precision, and decks that are too small make it hard to see the detail. I don’t get hung up on borders, but given the choice I would opt for borderless. Since I shuffle overhand and never riffle or bridge my cards, the deck would have to sit comfortably in the hand and maneuver cleanly in the shuffle. My current favorite in this regard is the U.S. Games Systems’ Centennial Edition of the Waite-Smith classic.
Finish is equally important to the tactile feel of a deck. Cards that are too shiny and sticky tend to clump together (the Star Tarot is a case in point), while those that are too slippery are impossible to tame. A linen finish is probably best from the standpoint of being suitably “toothy” to avoid both extremes, but my favorite finish is the one on my old Tarot Classic Tarot de Marseille deck from the early ’70s: it has a waxy feel that shuffles like a dream.
Card stock must be sturdy but also “whippy” so the deck doesn’t readily succumb to creasing while at the same time not feeling like a stack of rigid beer coasters. The recent trend toward flimsy cardboard is a curse that should be exorcised. The U.S. Games reissue of the Conver Ben-Dov Tarot de Marseille is one that gets it right.
For overall excellence in nearly all of these categories I will cite the Colores Arcus edition of the Tabul Mundi Tarot by M.M. Meleen. It is a Thoth reinterpretation (clone is too sterile a term for it) that makes a solid run at matching its inspiration; call it “second among equals.” (I only wish it were available in a slightly smaller size).