For a Tarot beginner, choosing a first deck is an incredible and impactful moment. The right deck will communicate clearly to you and become a powerful ally, while the wrong one will end up gathering dust somewhere in a corner. So what makes a deck right or wrong? There are as many answers as there are individuals. There is, in fact, no such thing as a wrong deck. A cousin of mine taught herself the Minor Arcana with playing cards. Others I know collect 5 or 6 decks as beginners and slowly become introduced to each.
One deck is more than enough to learn how to read Tarot. The most important criteria is that you feel connected to it, this connection will create the bond that allows you to communicate with your cards. I know it can be overwhelming to choose a deck from the myriad options available. I put together this comparison of TWELVE decks which I hope will help you get a feel for what you want in your Tarot cards and some inspiration in which ones you might like.
I chose the Star and the Two of Cups to photograph, not for any particular reason other than that they are both happy cards to me that can display some range. One Major and one Minor Arcana, although of course looking at two of seventy-eight cards does not give a full picture of the deck it does give some feel for the cards. I invite you to spend some time comparing the images below. What’s different and what’s the same? Do you get a feel for the archetype the cards are all referencing? This is a wonderful way to learn the cards.
These four decks are classics in their own right. None of them are the first but each has made large contributions to Tarot readers and taromancy as a practice. The Rider-Waite deck, illustrated by Pamela Coleman, is probably the most well known and widely used Tarot in the world. They were first published in 1909 and many modern Tarot are modeled after these. I recommend learning with this deck or one inspired by it to beginners who ask me. This isn’t the only option for a new reader but it certainly does make the road to learning a bit easier, especially as many books on how to read are also written in reference to these cards.
The Claude Burdel, 1751 deck next to it is much older as the name implies. The Major Arcana have many similarities, the Rider Waite expanded on these images in many cases. The Two of Cups makes a major difference known, before the Rider-Waite, all Minor Arcana contained very little imagery and mostly the suite symbol displayed in arrangement. The Two of Cups actually has quite a bit more symbolism on it than some of the other cards in this deck as it contains the lion’s head and intertwining serpents. These cards are wonderful but in my opinion harder to read from as they give you fewer symbols to interpret and require more memorization.
The Thoth deck was designed by the controversial Aleister Crowley in 1944. Crowley made many changes to the Rider-Waite cards along with Lady Frieda Harris, who painted the original images. It is not exactly the same in numbering and interpretation of some cards including a few Major Arcana. Learning with the Thoth deck can also prepare you to read many others as it is similar enough to most decks, and there are many decks which take influence from the Thoth directly as well. This was my first Tarot deck and I have always found it to be very powerful.
In 1984 the Voyager Tarot was released making it more modern than the others. It’s incredibly different than the classical Tarot and uses collage as well as different suites and some differing Major Arcana as well. I’ve included it here as I feel this deck really opened the door for Tarot to have a vast interpretation and there are many modern Tarot, particularly made by independent artists, that explore the boundaries of the Tarot with their own suites and symbols. I’ve seen many decks using collage in more recent years, these decks usually deviate quite a bit in imagery and sometimes meaning, they are just as powerful as the classics if you are drawn to them.
In the Ethereal Visions Tarot, designed by Matt Hughes, the style is quite minimal but some of the same symbolism appears in these cards, giving you more of an essence of the meaning and a bit less to work with. There’s a lot of beauty in this deck and it has a wonderful thick stock with gorgeous gold foiling; however, it’s more minimal style may be harder for new readers and this is something to consider in choosing your deck.
The Tarot Mucha (created by Lunaea Weatherstone) have a classical feel and beautiful painting modeled after the work of Czech artist Alfonse Mucha (1860-1939). It is relevant to note that while the feel is very classical, this deck reimagines many of the classical Tarot symbolism in order to stay true to the aesthetic and inspiration. The images are parallel to Rider-Waite but there are distinct differences. This is true of many of the decks here if you look closely. What difference does it make for the figure in the Star to be gazing into the water, into the sky, or off into the distance? There’s actually quite a different feeling and these gazes can be interpreted in their own ways as well; one being reflective, one aspirational, and one avoidant. Again, there is no right or wrong, as I’ve collected more decks I’ve come to get to know each one and I honor each deck’s energy as well as what I know about each archetype (each card).
The Fenestra Tarot by Chatriya follows the Rider-Waite imagery like a lot of the decks we see here. It’s very romantic with rich symbolism. I love this deck for readings related to matters of the heart and love. At the same time, there is something quite orderly and pleasing about these cards, they feel extremely well thought out to me and, being more classic, a wonderful deck for a beginning reader.
Finally, the Sun and Moon Tarot, inspired by Thoth and designed by Vanessa Decort, is quite modern in it’s beautifully illustrated and deceptively simple artwork. I say deceptively simple because this deck is very rich in symbols and gives you a lot to work with as a reader. Looking at the Two of Cups from this deck as well as the Thoth referenced above, you may see the different meaning given for this card “Love” as opposed to “Equilibrium” or “Balance” from others. Maybe you see how these interpretations stem from the same concept of balance in your emotional body. I point out this distinction only to remind you of the importance in getting to know each deck that you purchase. Do your homework and research the meanings of the cards, read books etc. to give yourself a fuller understanding of each card and how to interpret them for yourself in collaboration with the artist’s intention.
The Spiritsong Tarot, from Paulina Cassidy, offers a combination of traditions, introducing animal guide symbolism with classical Tarot meanings. In my opinion this deck is really well done. While not traditional, it does contain rich symbolism through the animal chosen for each card, including the Minor Arcana. The meanings of the cards remain pretty true to Rider-Waite; learning these meanings will help you get to know Tarot more generally, the symbolism will be different and change things a bit. The guide book on this one is very good as well and gives wonderful rich meanings for each card. Overall this is a strong deck which could be great for a beginner, especially an animal lover.
The Ostara Tarot was a collaborative effort between four artists and friends in British Columbia. It also comes with a gorgeous and really well done guide book that offers really good information. This deck is again inspired by the Rider-Waite, however it has been reimagined quite a bit. The essence of the cards feels the same to me and some cards bear more resemblance to the classics than others. The Ostara comes on a very nice, more plastic card stock. The cards stick together at first but with some handling the deck has become easy to use and I imagine it will hold up very well in time. The feel and stock of the cards can play a huge role in your connection to a deck, and unfortunately is pretty difficult to know unless you feel the cards in your hand. This is not always possible so researching and reading reviews is the best way to get an idea of what a deck will actually feel like in your hands.
Johanna Gargiulo-Sherman is an artist and psychic who designed the Sacred Rose Tarot. This deck does stick to a lot of the classic imagery but has been heavily stylized into a Gothic vibe. This is a good example of a deck having a kind of “vibe,” to me it’s moody and feels more serious than a lot of the others displayed here. This has a strength in some situations and I wouldn’t say this deck is negative. I do think decks with this much of their own flavor are very individual. A certain feeling can be great for readings of that nature, or for a client that exudes a certain energy.
The Zillich Tarot is another that’s based on the Thoth, designed by Christine Zillich, it comes in a smaller size in a wonderful tin you can easily carry. The cards are a nice stock and easy to use. I’ve used this deck a ton since I received it this year. These cards, like others in this row, reimagine the Tarot using the meanings of the classical decks and exploring new imagery. This deck gives you a lot to work with, there’s color symbolism in addition to image and shape. When it comes to shuffling, size does matter. Thinking about the size of the cards you want to use can be helpful! If your hands are smaller or larger, you may want to consider how well a certain deck may sit in your hands. Many classic decks are even available in more than one size if you find you have a preference.
If there is one lesson I can really push (and maybe am pushing?) it’s that each deck is going to have it’s own experience. As a reader, getting to know each deck you use is most of the work! It’s also incredibly joyful work to examine the cards and explore what you see in each one as well as what you receive from the author in the guidebooks provided. If you do have more than one deck to look at, compare a few of the cards for yourself and notice what is the same and what’s different. This practice gives you an idea of the quintessential meaning of each card as well as your own particular tastes as a reader. Spending time with your cards is the best way to learn Tarot and create a powerful connection with your deck as a tool and friend.
I love talking about Tarot and sharing with you. I offer one on one guidance for readers in addition to readings, and I’m always happy to answer a quick question via email. I hope you’ve enjoyed this comparison and that you have fun picking out your next Tarot deck! Let me know which is your favorite in the comments section!
***please note the Ethereal Visions, Sun and Moon, Spiritsong, Sacred Rose and Zillich Tarot were gifted to me in exchange for use and review by US Games.