How to pick your first Tarot deck
Firstly, some of you might be thinking: Wait a second, Nikki. Don’t people say that you have to be gifted your first tarot deck? What do you mean ‘pick your own deck’???
My personal take on that sentiment is that it’s pure superstition. I don’t know where it came from, but I think that it kind of sucks.
I mean, it’s lovely for those who are lucky enough to be given one for whatever reason. It does happen. But what if it doesn’t?
If that happens to you then please, please don’t continue to wait!
I’ve heard of people waiting literally YEARS to start their journey with tarot thanks to this outdated belief. Which to me is tragic. So, don’t believe any hype.
If you haven’t yet got your hands on tarot deck and you want one – then you can (and should) buy your own.
When it comes to buying your first tarot deck, it can be overwhelming since you’ll quickly realise that there are about 1,001 options for you to choose between.
Tarot or Oracle? Super traditional or cat themed?
The wonderful thing about the tarot system is that it’s so versatile and there’s room for many diverse approaches. You can be regimented, academic and dedicated to study. Or you can be totally free-wheeling, playful and imaginative.
It really feels like there are tarot decks for almost any kind of reader these days. No matter your preferences or approach.
Here are some questions to ask yourself that can help you determine what deck to work with:
- Can you already consciously pick up implied meaning from a picture/artwork/advert?
- Are you artistic and/or used to working with symbols and motifs?
- Do you consider yourself very intuitive?
- How are you with dream interpretation?
- Do you think you’d prefer to have the security of a prescribed meaning?
- Are you more of an ‘academic’ learner?
- Do you like the idea that the tarot comes from a line of traditions and want to get on board with that?
- Do you just really want a cat themed something?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions and in my opinion there is no right way to learn tarot, either.
I will say however that the best tarot readers in my opinion blend the technical and intuitive. They take their work with tarot seriously, but are open to play as well.
However, this type of mastery is something that takes time. And we all start from different places.
Tarot decks for traditionalists and people who would like decks backed up by a lot of resource material to learn from:
- Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS). Or any of its close relatives/clones. Eg. Morgan Greer, Robin Wood, etc .
- Marseille and its derivatives
The Morgan Greer. The RWS Centennial Edition. Dame Darcy’s Mermaid Tarot.
The Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck is perhaps the most universally recognisable deck since it’s often used in film and TV.
It’s a solid introductory tarot deck. But not everyone resonates with its artwork.
This deck is good for traditionalists as there’s a solid foundation of knowledge built up over time.
You may enjoy these decks if you’re at all interested in mystery schools of the early 20th century. Or, you feel like you’re going to be very reliant on book meanings for a while and need some intellectual scaffolding. There are plenty of books and resources that use the RWS as the reference deck.
You can also get a lot out of working with the RWS without using books or extra resources. The entire deck is figuratively illustrated; each card depicts a fully realized image for you to consider and interpret.
There are lots of options even just amongst Rider-Waite-Smith deck. My favourite is the Centennial Smith-Waite edition.
The Marseille Tarot is one of the most traditional decks you can get and there are some rich resources for it. The difficulty with this deck is that the Minor Arcana (which comprises 56 out of 78 cards) doesn’t have figurative illustrations.
Rather than scenes, you have something that’s a lot more like a deck of playing cards. You will likely need to approach this deck in some kind of academic way to get anywhere.
Tarot de Marselha
Down the rabbit hole of the Western esoteric tradition
- The Book of Thoth and its derivatives
Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus
If you come to tarot with any background/interest/experience in the western occult and not afraid to start off with something abstract then this might be the starter deck for you.
It was painted by Lady Frieda Harris between 1938 and 1943 under the direction of the infamous Aleister Crowley.
It’s a particularly dense tarot deck – loaded with esoteric symbolism. The artwork is beautiful though and I feel like you could read this deck intuitively.
This was one of my first tarot decks and at this point I also had some astrology knowledge under my belt which allowed me to connected more easily to the artwork. As I mentioned it’s loaded with symbolism – including astrology and qabalah.
So if you’ve had exposure to those systems already (or would like some) then this might be a good option.
Other tarot decks that are based on the Thoth deck include: The Haindl Tarot, the Rosetta Tarot and the Tabula Mundi Colores Arcus (one of my current all-time favourite decks that you can see me unboxing here). If you pick one of these, I’d also recommend getting their accompanying books.
Contemporary subversion/anything goes themed decks
- The world’s your oyster!
The Wildwood Tarot
Start here if you really don’t think you’re at all interested in the underlying models etc to begin with; see yourself as highly visual/intuitive; and want some creative, colourful random (but always meaningful) guidance in your life.
There are many, many modern decks available these days.
And it’s worth checking out Instagram for inspiration. (Pro-tip: Try #tarotreadersofinstagram).
You’ll find everything from bright, soft New Age imagery to gothic horror to the playfully abstract.
There’s also the insanely popular, paradigm-busting and highly instagrammable Wild Unknown.
And if you really want a cat themed tarot, you’ll find it here.
Oracle decks are a relatively new development in the cartomancy world. They’re more like powerful freeform guidance wearing a particular different mask.
These decks are usually not based on any kind of traditional system (ie. They can be any number of cards in the deck) but just like traditional tarot there are dozens of differently themed ones out there.
Some of my favourites: The Journey of Love Oracle. Brian Froud’s Faerie Oracle.
Journey of Love Oracle. Brian Froud’s Faerie Oracle.
Thanks to social media and the popularity of tarot you can find pictures all over the web of different decks so you can check out the artwork before you invest.
Ultimately – no matter if you pick traditional, contemporary or oracle – I think it’s important that you find a deck that has artwork that you resonate with.
If you’re anything like me – hating the artwork will do nothing to help you actually learn to read the cards.