Tarot is a rewarding art which can have a real impact on your life and your deck is the tool that you use. An artist chooses the tools that work best for them; you should do the same when you choose your deck. This post will discuss what I believe are the best beginner tarot decks; what a tarot deck is and how it differs from oracle decks; how to buy your deck whether new or used; and the different tarot systems to be aware of.
I am writing this post mainly for beginners to tarot but it should be useful for anyone.
The post is based on many years of personal experience of buying and using different tarot decks and systems. As such this is all my personal opinion and you may not agree with some or all of it. And that’s O.K! As always, take what works for you and discard the rest.
Before we even get into the post, I want to address one tarot myth. You can buy your first beginner tarot deck; you do not have to wait for someone to gift a deck to you. I discuss this myth, along with other tarot myths, in ‘9 Tarot Myths – False…or True?‘ which you can read here.
What is the best tarot deck?
For beginners to tarot, this is a question that frequently comes up. Makes sense. You would want to use the best beginner tarot deck you can, wouldn’t you? The answer is: the best tarot deck – for beginners or even experienced readers – is the one you enjoy using the most.
Is this a cop out answer? Maybe a little bit. The truth is, to actually get the most from your deck, you have to really enjoy the artwork which helps you form the essential connection to your deck. And that is subjective, differing for everyone.
What I hope to do in this post is help you make sure that the deck you’re buying is going to click for you before you buy it. And that will take a little work.
What is a tarot deck?
All tarot decks have certain aspects in common which separates them from other decks used in cartomancy (the art of divination using cards).
A tarot deck will have:
78 Cards. No more, no less.
22 Trumps or Major Arcana (Arcana just means secrets)
56 Minor Arcana made up of 4 suites.
The 4 suites of the Minor Arcana consist of variations of the following: Cups; Wands/Rods/Batons; Swords; Coins/Pentacles.
Each suite consists of 10 Minor Arcana going from Ace to 10 and 4 Court cards: Page/Princess; Knight; Queen; King/Prince
Difference between Tarot and Oracle decks
Oracle decks are another popular type of divination deck. The difference between a tarot deck and an oracle deck is that oracle decks do not have any structure. Also, each oracle deck can have different numbers of cards and the card meanings differ depending on what the deck creator decided. Each oracle deck is therefore different from every other oracle deck.
To make things confusing, there are decks that have ‘Tarot’ in the title but they are in fact oracle decks. Examples include the Akashic Tarot which has 62 cards and the Psychic Tarot for the Heart Oracle deck – a 65 card deck.
I have nothing against oracle decks, I use one or two myself to supplement my tarot readings. But if you want to learn and read tarot, make sure you are getting a tarot deck.
Buying a New tarot deck
Tarot is hugely popular and you can buy tarot decks online really easily. If you are fortunate enough to have a large bookshop near you, they may carry tarot decks. Metaphysical shops will almost certainly carry tarot decks.
Actually buying the deck is the easy part these days. Making sure you are buying the right deck is the important bit, especially a beginner tarot deck.
When you are thinking about a particular deck, try to see as many pictures of the cards as possible if you can’t physically look at the deck. There will likely be a YouTube review and walk through of the deck. You can Google for pictures of the cards and social media like Pinterest will probably have a good few pins from the deck.
Read and listen to the reviews as well. One thing i’ve learnt over the years it that the physical aspect of the cards is really important. Are the cards large or small? Is the card stock thick or flimsy? There’s no point getting really excited about a deck only to discover that it falls apart after a few weeks! Amazon reviews can be quite useful, especially the more critical reviews.
Another thing i’ve noticed is that when someone writes an article or does a YouTube video called ‘Best Beginner Tarot Decks’ they often include expensive and hard to obtain independently created decks. If you are interested in an expensive deck and can afford it then go for it! The problem when you are beginning tarot is that you may not know what you like. It takes some experience to know what kinds of deck work for you. That really expensive deck may turn out to be a waste of money.
If you are a beginner, I would recommend sticking to relatively cheap mass market decks – the sort of decks you find on Amazon – and see what styles and flavours suit you before splashing the cash.
Counterfeit Tarot Decks
Something else to watch out for are counterfeit decks. Unfortunately, Amazon; eBay and Etsy have listings for knock off decks. These decks may be incredibly cheap but they are also poorly produced and steal income from the publishers and deck creators. Avoid them at all costs.
One way to spot a fake deck apart from the low price is to compare the image of the box with an image from a genuine review – the fakes usually have little to no writing on the boxes and have odd publisher names. Avoid fakes where possible; the decks are horrible!
buying or trading for a used tarot deck
Buying or trading for a secondhand deck can be an affordable way to get a tarot deck. If you are interested in old, out of print decks, this is going to be the only way to obtain them. Sites such as eBay and Etsy usually have a lot of used decks for sale. Some Facebook groups also trade decks.
Things to look out for when buying a used tarot deck
When it comes to buying used decks it’s very much a case of buyer beware! There are some things to watch out for.
Firstly, are all the cards actually present? Make sure you read the description of the deck, especially if you are buying on eBay. Some people do sell incomplete decks; they may be useful for art projects but incomplete decks are not helpful if you are reading tarot. If you buy an incomplete deck and this was not mentioned, you will be entitled to your money back.
Secondly, what is the condition of the deck? Pay attention to the pictures and the description of the deck. Most good sellers will point out any damage and provide pictures. Are the cards dirty? Are they creased or torn? Sometimes a really worn out deck means it is really cheap and some people enjoy using tired decks.
Also, particularly important if you have allergies, check if the deck smells or has been in a smokey environment or a home with pets. Again, most good sellers on eBay will mention this. Some really old decks tend to have a musty ‘old paper’ smell. I quite like that but perhaps you don’t.
Beware Expensive Used Tarot Deck Prices
Another problem is price gouging, especially for out of print decks. Many decks, particularly on eBay and Etsy, are priced far higher than they are actually worth. It seems that as soon as a deck goes out of print, people think they become much more valuable. Not true. Value depends on demand and, with a few exceptions, most tarot decks are not that valuable except in the minds of the sellers.
To check what an out of print deck should be selling for, go to eBay and type in the name of the deck you are interested in. Then, in the filter, select ‘Sold’ and ‘Completed’ items. This will give you the prices that the particular item actually sold for in the past. In my experience, the actual price that people are willing to pay for a deck is far below what some sellers are asking for. It pays to be patient and wait.
Trading for a used tarot deck
If you already have some tarot decks you may want to trade for a deck you want. Facebook has some groups where you can trade decks and some tarot websites allow you to trade as well.
The important thing is to be able to trust the person you are trading with. If you are on an online site you may be able to gauge a trader’s reputation. Don’t be afraid to ask about the condition of the deck if it’s not mentioned. Maybe even ask for pictures.
Personally, i’m not keen on trading for decks. If something goes wrong with the trade you could lose out with no recourse to compensation. For a beginner, trading may not be an option but if you acquire a few decks it can be a great way to obtain an otherwise hard to find deck.
The Tarot Systems
So, you have your eye on a particular deck and you’re new or early in your tarot journey. You can go ahead and buy or trade for that beginner tarot deck and continue practising and learning tarot, right? Well, you can but you’ll find learning tarot easy or challenging depending on what tarot system your deck follows.
A tarot system is how the deck is set up: where the card’s meanings and artwork are derived from; whether all the cards have illustrated pictures or not. There are a few systems for tarot; some are easier for beginners to learn with, others are probably best left for when you are more experienced with tarot.
Let’s have a look at some of the main tarot systems that I have personally worked with.
The Rider Waite Smith (RWS) System
The Rider Waite Smith tarot deck (also known as the Rider deck; Rider Waite deck; the Waite Smith; the Smith Waite; the Tarot of A.E. Waite; and the Pamela Coleman Smith tarot) was first published in 1909 and is the first deck that really brought tarot to widespread public attention. The deck is easy to learn and easy to use intuitively as all the cards have illustrated artwork. This is not true with all tarot decks.
Both the deck creator A.E. Waite and the artist, Pamela Coleman Smith, were members of an offshoot of the secret magickal society The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Waite and Smith packed the deck full of esoteric knowledge from the Qabalah; astrology; numerology; Christian faith and 18th century cartomancy meanings. While understanding this esoteric knowledge can help in reading the cards, you really don’t need it.
There are many editions of this deck currently available including the Rider Tarot deck (pictured above); the Centennial Smith Waite; the Albano Waite; the Universal Waite; The Radiant Rider Waite; and the Tarot of A.E. Waite. Most of the differences are down to the colouration of the cards and the linework. Find one that appeals to you the most.
Most tarot decks are based on the ‘Rider Waite Smith System’ which means the artwork may be different but the cards closely follow the RWS artwork. When you are interested in a deck see if it follows the RWS system.
Many beginner tarot books use the RWS as the basis for the card meanings so you can easily start with tarot using an RWS based deck.
In my personal tarot journey I did start with RWS based decks but not the RWS itself. At the time I didn’t like the original RWS artwork but I found a couple of decks based on it I did enjoy. Now, I regularly use the RWS itself as it has grown on me over time. When you are starting with tarot I recommend having two beginner tarot decks. One is the RWS based deck you actually like and one is a RWS deck for study.
The Thoth Tarot Deck
The Thoth tarot is the creation of infamous 20th Century occultist Aleister Crowley and painted with consumate skill by Lady Frieda Harris. This deck is arguably the next most popular tarot in the world after the RWS. Unlike the RWS, not all the cards are fully illustrated and the deck is not really suitable for intuitive reading.
Like A.E. Waite, Crowley was also a member of the Golden Dawn and then went on to found another secret society, the Argenteum Astrum; later joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O) – another occult society – and founded his own religion Thelema.
Crowley put all of his esoteric knowledge into the Thoth tarot making it an absolute esoteric powerhouse of a deck. This puts many people off using the Thoth but it shouldn’t. Some study will help you get the most out of the deck but I do know tarot readers who use the Thoth with very little or no study of the deck. The artwork in the deck is stunning.
Crowley’s reputation also puts people off using the deck but you shouldn’t let this stop you. It is not that difficult to separate the deck from it’s creator and use it on it’s own terms.
Books on the Thoth Tarot
Two books I strongly recommend to help learn the deck are ‘Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot‘ by Lon Milo DuQuette. This is a relatively easy book to follow and a good introduction to the deck. The other book is Crowley’s own guide to the Thoth ‘The Book of Thoth.’ The card meanings are worthwhile but, to be honest, I still find most of the rest of the book to be almost indecipherable. Still, it is the actual guide to the Thoth tarot so I definitely recommend it.
The Thoth tarot comes in 3 sizes: large, medium and pocket size. The large deck is great for study but I tend to use the medium deck in actual readings.
Unlike the RWS, there are relatively few decks based on the Thoth system. Some such as ‘The Millenium Thoth‘ and ‘The Liber T of the Stars Eternal‘ closely follow the Thoth’s style of what are called ‘semi-illustrated’ stylized pips (pip cards are where only the suit symbols are shown). Other decks such as ‘The Urban Tarot‘ and the ‘Sun and Moon tarot‘ are fully illustrated like the RWS but the artwork follows the Thoth meanings. These fully illustrated Thoth based decks might be an easy introduction to the Thoth.
I find the Thoth tarot is the deck to turn to if I want direct no BS answers. The Thoth is not for people who like sugar coated answers; the deck is very honest and will, metaphorically speaking, slap you in the face and shout ‘LOOK, THIS IS THE BRUTAL HONEST TRUTH!’
I came to the Thoth tarot after I was comfortable with the RWS. The Thoth is a more challenging deck to get to know but I find it is very powerful. I have met some tarot readers who use the Thoth as a beginner tarot deck but I recommend it for when you have some tarot experience under your belt. However, you don’t need to study it for years to use it effectively.
Tarot de Marseille (TdM)
The TdM is a historical tarot that predates the RWS and Thoth decks by centuries. Originally, tarot decks were used for playing card games and the TdM was initially intended for this purpose. These days, the TdM is commonly used for divination in France where it first appeared but has been gaining wider popularity in other western countries over recent years.
The TdM is a non-esoteric tarot and, traditionally, only the Major Arcana are used for reading. The TdM is considered a ‘pip’ deck – which i’ll explain further down – but it is very much it’s own ‘system.’ There are many TdM decks available – they are all similar but differ in certain aspects. Some are modern decks, others are historical reproductions.
As a beginner tarot deck, learning how to use the TdM can be challenging since the minor arcana, 2 through 10, are not illustrated and just show symbols of the suite, or pips. Why would you use the TdM then? If you learn a system for reading the pips, such as numerology plus the suite element, your intuition can really take off.
Introduction Books for the Tarot de Marseille
I do read the TdM both using the whole 78 card deck and just using the 22 Major Arcana. I find just using the Major Arcana is a very different way of reading tarot from the RWS and Thoth which gives more short, sharp answers. Two books I strongly for learning the TdM are ‘The Marseille Tarot Revealed: The Complete Guide to Symbolism, Meanings, and Methods‘ by Yoav Ben-Dov and ‘Marseille Tarot‘ by Camelia Elias.
Although some tarot beginners do favour the TdM, I honestly feel the TdM is not the best type of beginner tarot deck because there are no pictures to help with reading the cards. I came to the TdM after I had become familiar with both the RWS and the Thoth systems; having that tarot experience helped when it came to the TdM.
Now, I use the TdM and pip decks quite often as I find my intuition is not limited by the pictures on the cards. I highly recommend trying the TdM only when you’ve gained some tarot experience. But if it floats your boat then dive in!
Speaking of pip decks…
Pip Tarot Decks
I’ve just talked about the TdM being a pip deck – where the 2 through 10 of each suite only show the suite symbols – so why am I writing about pip decks? The TdM is a very particular style of pip deck with a particular way of traditionally reading the Major Arcana. There are plenty of other historical and modern tarot decks that only have pips but you can’t really read these decks the same way as the TdM.
The TdM is a pip deck but not all pip decks are the TdM.
The Inversion Tarot deck above is an example of a modern pip deck. This deck is a hybrid combining aspects of both the RWS and the TdM but you can see the minor arcana only have the suite symbols – no fully illustrated pictures. Other modern pip decks include the Tattoo Tarot; the Tarot del Toro; and the Tarot of the Witches by Fergus Hall. Historical pip decks currently available include the Ancient Italian Tarot; the Tarocco Sopraffino; and the 1JJ Swiss tarot.
A lot of the techniques for reading the TdM don’t work on other types of pip decks. The TdM was originally created using woodcut engravings. This created a 2 D picture where figures face directly left, right or straight ahead. This influenced the TdM reading style. Many other pip decks can’t be read like this.
Books for Pip Tarot Decks
There are several books and sources I recommend for learning how to read pip decks. The main one is ‘Untold Tarot‘ by Caitlin Matthews. In this book, Caitlin discusses historical decks – including the TdM – but the techniques work well with other pip decks.
Another tarot author who discusses techniques for reading pip and TdM decks is Vincent Pitisci. I highly recommend his books, ‘Genius of the Tarot‘ and ‘Essential Tarot.’ He has also has a very informative YouTube channel which you can find here.
These days, I tend to use pip and TdM decks about 50% of the time for my readings because, as I mentioned above, these decks vastly expand the scope of my intuition. Would I recommend a pip deck as a beginner tarot deck? No. Pip decks are even harder for the tarot newbie to learn than the TdM but once you are experienced with one of the other tarot systems you should definitely give pip decks a go.
Once you are able to read tarot using a pip deck you can actually use the techniques to read any tarot deck. So, pip decks are hard to learn but open up every other tarot deck for you. After all, nothing worth doing is ever easy. You never know, perhaps a pip deck is your best beginner tarot deck?
Unique Tarot Decks
There are some tarot decks which have their own unique system rather than following the RWS or Thoth systems – both influenced by the Golden Dawn. Examples of these decks include the Dreams of Gaia Tarot; The Wildwood Tarot and the Mary-El tarot.
These are very popular tarot decks but if you learn tarot using one of these decks you will find it very difficult to use any other tarot deck. The unique meanings and art of these decks will make it difficult to use a deck from another system and, very likely, you will have to start from scratch with another system.
I don’t believe these unique decks are a good choice for a beginner tarot deck but, as i’ve said all along, if you like one of these decks then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
One issue with tarot decks is that they tend to go out of print and become hard to find. If your favourite RWS based deck becomes out of print and you need to replace it, you could just try another RWS based deck (or go on eBay. But beware price gouging!). But if your favourite unique system deck goes out of print and you need to replace it, you’re kind of stuck. So, there’s that.
I hope this post helps you to think about what beginner tarot deck may work best for you and how to go about buying it. I learnt some lessons about buying decks and the different tarot systems over the years so hopefully you won’t have to.
Happy tarot reading!