When I first wrote up the answer to this question several years ago, I only had 12 decks in my possession, but that certainly has changed! I’m up to about 35 now, and my favorites have shifted a bit in the process. I take decks three ways; for the art or theme, for the philosophy and writing quality, and/or for the effectiveness/readability.
I am pretty adamant that the deck has to be more than pretty pictures. If it doesn’t include a well-thought out perspective in an accompanying book (doesn’t have to be big or long, just interesting), I probably won’t keep it.
That said, of my favorite decks for reading, I do use more than one. I like to tailor my reading method to the deck philosophy, and the deck to the type of question or context. My decks fall into two basic categories for reading purposes.
This Is Life, Down to Earth
Most of the Rider-Waite-Smith types of decks (illustrated Minor Arcana and meanings associated with RWS) I use fall into this category.
My favorite version of the actual RWS is the Universal Waite. I tried the Original initially, but the colors are quite muddy, and I found the UW to be so nicely recolored without being garish or cartoonish so that I could enjoy Pamela Colman-Smith’s drawings and see a lot more symbolic detail. For basic readings, there’s nothing quite as reliable as the symbolism in the RWS cards.
Artistically, my overall favorite RWS-style decks are drawn by Ciro Marchetti. He’s quite popular altogether, and I see why. The digital imagery is stunning, colorful, and consistent in Renaissance theme while varied in specific imagery. And he collaborates well with other readers, which gave multiple perspectives to his Legacy of the Divine Tarot, which I have used regularly. I also love his Gilded Tarot Royale (very rich in imagery—see the Ten of Pentacles in the image above) for weekly readings.
As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, the Robin Wood Tarot (see the Star far left above) was my first deck and I still use it regularly for readings.
I also love the down-to-earth (yes, even though the theme is Christian medieval) and symbolically rich Golden Tarot by Kat Black (see the World at far right above). Medieval life and art weren’t just about Madonnas, baby Jesus and saints. The art feels very much about the universal concerns of human life on the Earth plane with a tease of Heaven in the distance.
I have also based my own Cosmic Whispers deck on the RWS system (see the Ace of Cups in center of the above image), although by basing my take on NASA images of the universe, I am taking a more abstract approach to some of the RWS imagery.
Inner Worlds and Sacred Work
For questions about spiritual path and psychological growth, I use several decks that speak to a deeper archetypal perspective. Some are RWS style in art and meanings, and some are more in the Thoth Tarot tradition, with its focus on inner discipline and rigorous philosophical analysis.
The Thoth Tarot itself is cool, and although I set it aside a while back for the more visceral and mythologically wide-ranging Mary-el Tarot (see the Three of Disks in the image at the top), I plan to pick it up again this year to get back to its complexity and clarity. I was originally intimidated by both of these decks, but found the books on them to be crucial in getting comfortable in using them. Mary White, the author and illustrator of the Mary-el, wrote a wonderful in-depth guide to all the mythology she drew on to create her paintings for the deck. And for the original Thoth, there is no substitute for Lon Milo Duquette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. I even think I understand the Kabbalah Tree of Life stuff after reading his book (maybe).
The Osho Zen Tarot (see the Abundance card in the top picture) has some elemental commonalities with other systems, but is almost a cross between Tarot and an inspirational Oracle deck. Lots of variations in meanings, symbolism and card titles wrapped inside a Tarot structure. The theme is designed specifically for contemplation in the Zen Buddhist tradition, with quotes from Osho himself (a guru from the late 20th century).
For a trip into the essence of Mother Nature, I like the Wildwood Tarot (see the Queen of Arrows card in the top image). Will Worthington’s illustrations (his Druid Craft Tarot is another favorite) just speak to me. It’s a very easy deck to interpret intuitively, as soon as one gets used to the animals as the court cards.
I also use the Shadowscapes deck for in-depth psychological or spiritually oriented readings. I really connect with that one on an energetic/intuitive level and reads very easily that way. Quite magical with its delicate fairy sort of theme. I use it to help me focus on creative projects each weekend rather than using it every day.
Other Tarot Traditions
I am also determined to master a Marseille deck, which I don’t try to read like an RWS deck at all. Again, I am looking to respect the original method used for the deck, in this case, the down-to-earth fortune-telling/playing card divination methods from 200 years ago and more. I am currently using Lee Bursten’s interpretations for the Universal Tarot of Marseille, but am also incorporating other insights from a couple of Facebook groups I belong to.
That about rounds it out. A deck for every sensibility!
I found the questions for this series at a Tumblr account that no longer exists. A lovely person named Rhee started the thing. These are great prompts for telling stories about one’s journey through the world of Tarot, so I’ve started the series again on a weekly basis so you all can get to know me better, and also share your own answers to the questions in comments or links to your own posts. I’d love to hear from you!