There is no shortage of sage advice for neophyte tarot readers seeking their very first deck. Some of it has been debunked; for example, the old caveat that you can’t legitimately buy your first deck, it must be gifted to you. But other notions linger, like the opinion that you should latch onto the first deck that appeals to you visually, even if it’s one that is unlikely to be readable right out of the box. The fact that it seems to “resonate” strongly with your unschooled perceptions is no guarantee of its suitability for learning. So-called “art” decks are notorious for their beautiful but impenetrable facades, and decks based on esoteric principles are even more inscrutable to the novice. The backs of dusty drawers and cabinets are littered with poor first choices that never see the light of day after the initial thrill of ownership fades.
Although I’m not the best source for such advice, having started with that occult masterwork, the Thoth deck by Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris, and stayed with it exclusively for almost four decades, I’ve accumulated enough quality time with decks based on the Waite-Smith (aka RWS) model over the last seven years to recognize it as the best place to begin the tarot journey. My only caution is not to take the obvious stories, or narrative vignettes, in the visual images of the 40 “minor” cards at face value; this is, after all, an esoteric deck predicated on the same concepts as the Thoth deck, but its co-creator and scholarly inspiration, British occultist Arthur Edward Waite, aided by artist Pamela Colman Smith, chose to bury much of its deeper significance in prosaic scenes of everyday life. This has led to an unending stream of imaginative interpretation that has little to do with the kernel of archetypal knowledge at its heart, an unfortunate development that has become the dominant subculture among a great many users of the deck.
With that in mind, there are numerous variations on the 1909 classic that will serve the purpose; however, its companion book, Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot from the same era, is not the best source of written guidance (generally referred to as “keyword meanings”) for the simple reason that the text doesn’t always sync well with the tale being told by the pictures. Instead, get yourself a thoughtful treatment by a modern author, like Tarot Plain and Simple by Anthony Louis and work your way through that as you become acquainted with the cards. There are many spin-off decks, informally designated as “clones,” that may be a better fit for your personal aesthetic: the 1970’s-retro Morgan Greer and Aquarian are two examples, while the user-friendly Connolly is an agreeable alternative, as is the pagan-themed Robin Wood. Ciro Marchetti produced a couple of worthy decks using computer-generated (CGI) graphics that bear a close look, the Tarot of Dreams and the Gilded Tarot. Decks with fanciful or mystical artwork that doesn’t clearly express the central message in each card are best avoided at this early stage.