Choosing Your First Tarot Deck
Choosing a tarot deck can seem daunting when you’re just starting. With so many options out there (Bohemian Cat Tarot, Steampunk Tarot, even Lisa Frank Tarot!) the choices become epic, fast.
Add the nerves around the system itself – it’s so complicated, how am I ever going to learn all 78 cards, do you mean I can read tarot? – and you’re on the fast track for overwhelm.
In a way, I’m eternally grateful for the limited options I had when I started. In the new age bookstore in my town there were probably only three decks, and among those only one really jumped out to me. It was the classic Rider-Waite-Smith, and it has been my go-to deck ever since.
Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, my collection has grown exponentially. Spending a great deal of time in the tarot-verse has me stumbling on beautiful decks often (with disturbing consequences for my budget!) So with those new to tarot in mind I’ve compiled my tips for choosing your first deck.
Let’s get things started…
1. Go Classic
I’m not one for giving direct instructions, so this is as close as I’ll get: If you want to start off learning from the source, get yourself a copy of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (or the other OG decks of the other two major systems – the Marseille or the Thoth.)
As a reader who primarily uses the RWS, I’ll speak about that tradition. Not only does it resonate with me the most, but it also serves as an excellent jumping off point for learners.
This deck, published in 1910, is the basis of many modern tarot decks. Known somewhat creepily as “RWS clones,” they’ll be a snap to use after you’ve acquainted yourself with the original. The layout, 22 major arcana cards and 58 illustrated pips in four suits, is full of imagery and symbolism you can read so many ways. Think incorporating astrology, numerology, esoteric traditions such as kabbalah, or simply your intuition.
Personally, I adore the illustrations done by Pamela Coleman Smith. For those not taken by the original, there are many other versions available, mostly with retouched colors. Try the Radiant if you want a vibrant pop or the Universal for a more soothing look. The Albano-Waite even has psychadelic colors if you’re feeling trippy.
And conveniently enough, most tarot books address this system, so you’ll have no shortage of resources at your fingertips. With this in mind, I suggest grabbing a copy of this deck even if it’s not your #1 tarot true love - you can use it as a cross reference when using RWS books and other resources.
2. Shop Around
But say you’re not drawn to the classic, Medieval-style illustrations of the RWS and want to find something more exciting. Maybe you’re curious about a modern deck like The Fountain Tarot or a classic feminist deck like the Motherpeace Tarot.
This is where the internet is truly our friend. Google around and find decks you’re interested. Read reviews and look at as many photos as you can get your paws on. See how the cards are grouped and whether the illustrations resonate with you. You can find plenty of reviews on forums like Aeclectic and on tarot blogs. Keep it light – you don’t need to compile a treatise on why you’re choosing a certain deck. Just follow your curiosity and browse away.
3. Find a Hard Copy
There’s nothing like experiencing the real thing. If you have a metaphysical shop or even a bookstore that carries tarot, stop in and see if they have an opened copy of the deck you can see. Hold the cards, even give them a shuffle if you can. You’ll be handling your deck frequently and how they feel in your hand – the weight of the cardstock, the quality of the printing – is an important part of your experience with a deck.
If you have a friend who reads tarot, ask to see their collection. (I love showing off my cards, and there’s nothing more fun that connecting others with tarot. Plus, it’s fascinating seeing what decks people are drawn to!)
But fear not if you can’t see a deck in person – the quality of printing today is excellent and many reviews address the tactile side of cards. If you’re simply feeling drawn to something, go for it and trust your intuition. Which leads us to my final tip…
4. Follow Your Instincts
Tarot can be used practically and even analytically, but at its root it’s an intuitive tool meant to tap into our subconscious. It’s natural then that how you feel about a deck is the most important thing to keep in mind when making a choice. Your first tarot deck should resonate with a deep part of you, inviting you into its world with captivating images and mystery. Otherwise you won’t be called to work with it and your practice will be a slog when it should sing.
I know people who’ve started with decks outside of any major tarot tradition and developed a lush and personalized reading style with them because they feel deeply connected with the cards. For example, I had a student who resonated deeply with the natural imagery of the Wooden Tarot; as a former naturalist she was immediately able to craft profound and moving readings with the cards because of her natural connection with them. And that’s what’s most important.
Are you finding yourself being strongly drawn to the cards and you’re not sure why? Follow this instinct and get the deck.
I chose the RWS when I was 12 because I was absolutely fascinated with it. I saw the deck and knew I wanted to learn tarot. I was curious, nervous, and in awe of the magical world shown in the cards. Find a deck that does that for you and you’ll be enjoying the world of tarot for years to come.