Choosing your first tarot deck can be a daunting task. There are SO MANY out there and it seems like every day, someone is making a new one. When I got my first deck, it was 1987-ish and the internet wasn’t born yet. I lived in a rural area and my access to anything other than Waldenbooks was very limited. Now, anyone can easily design a deck, have it printed, and market it. AMAZING.
I didn’t even choose my first deck. It was a Christmas gift when I was a teenager and I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember if it came from my mom or my grandmother. One of the two, anyway.
My first deck was the Mythic Tarot which is loosely based on the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (RWS). The Mythic Tarot takes it’s inspiration from Mythology which is pretty cool, but also very specific to those stories. Many of the cards are similar in imagery to the RWS, but not in meaning. The book was very detailed into things like “this bird symbolizes Zeus… and this Devil is actually Pan… oh and this lady here? this is Persephone.” Cool, but difficult to read if you try to shoehorn the images and symbolism into modern day life. It can be done, for sure, but it requires a LOT of memorization.
As you can see from these images, they are pretty specific to individual personas. There is Persephone there in the Eight of Cups. Yes, her leaving the physical word behind and moving into the darkness does sort of mirror the idea of the Eight of Cups so that’s good. Poseidon is the Ace of Pentacles, which I personally find confusing because Pentacles is traditionally the Earth Element and Poseidon lives in the water.. but sure.. bursting forth with new energy.. ok. The Six of Swords here is Orestes who I know nothing about.. and the Five of Wands is Jason’s battle with the Dragon over the Golden Fleece so, yeah, it’s a fight.
But, basically, there is too much here for a beginner, in my opinion.
Seriously Consider the Rider Waite Smith in the Yellow Box
The RWS (unless you read Thoth) is what a lot of decks are based off and the beauty of the RWS deck is that it lends itself to an intuitive interpretation. The cards evoke an emotion and a feeling and provide a lot of detail to explore so you don’t have to learn something by rote.
See how the Five of Wands is evoking an emotion of conflict among people? And the Six of Swords feels like a family leaving the choppy waters headed towards smoother sailing? (Yes, the Ace is hard to get an emotion from.. I know.. but you have keywords to fall back on to kick your intuition into gear ~ it’s a good idea to know the “traditional meanings” but don’t be limited by them. Think of it like the drugs that were prescribed for depression also work for smoking cessation. They were intended for one thing but also work for another.. follow me?)
A word on intuition: if you want to be a tarot reader it really benefits you to work with your intuition. It gets your left brain out of the way and opens you up to the message from the Universe. The Tarot is a TOOL to facilitate your connection to the Information Highway. (and it’s not as old as people claim.. at least not as a divination tool)
The RWS is a great place to start. The other thing is that a LOT of books, teachers and websites reference it. If you will be looking for support from others, it’s good to have a working knowledge of this artwork. Also, I can’t help it. The wands look like giant penises to me. They just do. Take a look at the Ace of Wands and then tell me I’m wrong.
Look at a lot of decks to find artwork that appeals to you
I don’t enjoy the RWS artwork and I really don’t like the overt Christian overtones. I think it’s super important to find artwork that appeals to you. It’s difficult to find the message in the card when you don’t like looking at it. I actually got rid of my first RWS deck because I just couldn’t read with it. (I have since purchased a new one to work with for study only. But I have no intention on reading with it)
The deck I worked with for YEARS was the Morgan Greer. It’s a close up image of the RWS artwork and it’s borderless, which I enjoy.
But still, lots of Christian overtones. Since the explosion of Tarot interest, I’ve had some great opportunities to get decks that are still RWS based but with a twist.
Check out the Chariot! Talk about moving forward without really knowing where you are going… but doing it anyway. And there are more Alchemical symbols here and the deck has more of a magickal feel to it. Which is intentional since it’s meant to also work Magick. And the Eight of Cups has a slightly different vibe to it. I also love this deck because many of the images show people of different colors, sizes, races and sexual identities.
Modern images for modern times can sometimes read easier.
This is my newest deck for my collection and it totally updates the images. This is the Everyday Witch Tarot and I’m really digging how easy this is to read. You may not feel that all of these images are modern (cloaks, cauldrons etc) but they are a lovely mix of Modern images and NeoPagan Traditions. This deck just sings to me because of this mash up. I suspect there is a modern deck out there for you that fits your path. (Some of us do have actual magick brooms and wands and cauldrons in our homes.)
New Readers should probably avoid decks with pips
Tarot was a game, originally. If you go back to before the RWS deck, you will find the Visconti Deck named after the family that had the cards. See, paper was expensive so only rich people had decks and only rich people had time for actual games. I picked up this mini deck at the J.P. Morgan Library gift shop, where you can view three of the original Tarot cards from this deck.
I don’t read with it.
These decks don’t give you anything to work with other than numbers. That’s more than half your deck that you would need to memorize meanings for. Not an easy task and not really an intuitive task either.
Probably steer away from Novelty Cards/Promotional Material for your first deck.
Have you seen Penny Dreadful? Vanessa has a beautiful deck that was made just for the show.
I own it. I don’t read from it.
It’s amazing but limited in it’s ability to spark intuition. Also, all the minor cards 2-10 are pip cards. Nope. Just really neat to have it and look at it. (And I will admit that I’m currently waiting for my Twin Peaks Tarot deck to ship and I probably won’t read from that one either).
Which brings me to..
Probably best to avoid highly stylized/non-human decks to start.
There are some great non-human decks out that that probably read just fine. But they can be hard to read for beginners and can feel a bit off putting to friends you may want to read for as practice. Let’s face it. Some people still think the Tarot is Evil with the Capital E. I adore my Deviant Moon deck but I’ve only used it once in a reading for a client because.. well… look at it.
The only time I used it for a client was when they made a point of telling me they identify as non-binary and most decks are well.. Binary. And actually a lot of decks are very…. white.. and straight. Many of the images in the Deviant Moon deck are not gender specific. (I admit, I didn’t pick the best cards to demonstrate this but I was rolling with a theme)
Where do you go from here?
I think the best thing you can do is to get your eyes on some decks before you decide. Some great places to look at decks before you buy are:
- Your local metaphysical shop: Sometimes the owners will have decks open for you to look at. This is fantastic! But buy your deck there, ok? Don’t fondle the merch and then get a deal online. Spend the extra bucks to support your local seller.
- Aeclectic Tarot : An astonishing number of decks with a good sampling of each card in each deck. Plus reviews from actual readers.
- YouTube: A google search for YouTube Tarot Reviews will get you a ton of hits and a lot of folks will show you every single card. You will also get a lot of info about things that might be important to you like, card stock or boxes or the book that comes with it.
- Amazon reviews: lots of readers will put pictures of the cards in their reviews and are not shy about sharing their thoughts. (which reminds me.. I have a few reviews to do)
- Other readers: Opinions are like assholes. We all have one. What I think about a particular deck may be very different than what your friend and favorite reader thinks. Ask us. We LOVE to talk about our decks.
It is impossible to buy the “wrong” deck.
Truly. Every deck will tell you something about yourself. It will help you find what you are comfortable with and what you aren’t comfortable with. Discomfort is educating in and of itself. If you outgrow your deck or decide you don’t want to read from the one you bought, there is a healthy market out there for second hand decks. Many of us pooh pooh the idea that you shouldn’t read a used deck. If you really want to unload a deck you don’t like, someone will buy it.
What it really comes down to is this…
Buy the deck that speaks to you .. and if it doesn’t speak to you in six months, that’s ok too.. See, people evolve. What you like today, you may not like tomorrow. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Your time with the Tarot will change your perspective on things.. on people.. and on yourself.