The agony and ecstasy of choosing a new tarot deck

Tarot of The Magical Forest
Tarot of The Magical Forest

Buying a new tarot deck is an exciting and joyous occasion, right?

It’s the beginning of a new relationship after all, but with so many decks out there to choose from, it can actually get a bit daunting. Even if you see a deck you absolutely must have, you can still have some concerns, and finding a deck that “speaks” to you can be trickier than it sounds.

There’s plenty of advice online about purchasing your first (or fiftieth) deck, and most tarot books offer advice on deck purchasing. Sage wisdom from long-time readers and authors can seem sacrosanct. That’s what I thought, about a decade ago, when I purchased my first decks.

Here’s some advice I followed that didn’t end up totally working out for me: buy a Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck because it’s the most common, is in most books on tarot, and is the easiest to learn from.

The ubiquitous Rider-Waite-Smith tarot

Try as I might, I just could never get into the deck.

I worked hard to memorize the images, names, and meanings, and that’s as far as it went. Because I wasn’t really into the RWS deck, I gladly purchased another deck, and then another.

Because I rigidly stuck to the advice I’d read, didn’t have experience, and doubted myself, I ended up with decks that weren’t right for me. Consequently, these decks and my tarot practice went on the shelf, where they remained for years.

The Dreaming Way Tarot
The Dreaming Way Tarot

My interest in tarot would be reignited every now and then, and I spent years frustratedly working with it, thinking the problem was with me. I just had some kind of block. I didn’t trust my intuition with the deck I was working with.

Because I wasn’t getting anything intuitively from my readings, I ended up referring to the traditional meanings on websites, and in books. What I really wanted was to put away the books, everything I’d learned from them, and to read intuitively. I kept feeling like that was right below the surface, but just out of reach. I finally accepted that I just wasn’t clicking with the decks I had.

The Haindl Tarot
The Haindl Tarot

I had become very afraid of buying yet another deck that I wouldn’t connect with.

I had a ‘wish list’. But one deck I feared would just end up being another “novelty” deck that wouldn’t help me move my practice to a deeper level. Another deck I feared was too advanced, and I wouldn’t be able to get anything from it. Yet another, Shadowscapes, I was almost embarrassed of my interest in because of the pastel colors, fairies, and dragons. I feared these would just be pretty pictures and not something that would take me there.

All this, on top of the fear of not being able to find my own life experiences and values reflected in a deck because of the white-washed, heteronormative, cisnormative, patriarchal ideals built into many decks. This can get a bit discouraging.

Tarot of The Master. I’m not sure exactly who’s the master.

I just gave it up for a bit, and hadn’t been doing anything with the tarot at all.

My indecision on the new decks went on for a long time, until I decided to do some readings with the decks I had and look up those cards online from the decks I was considering. This turned out to be tremendously helpful. It only took a few readings before I was almost convinced that the Shadowscapes Tarot was the right deck for this moment in my life.

Relieved to finally have some idea of the right deck, I went for it, and I wasn’t wrong!

With this deck, my feeling of frustration with not being able to connect is gone. I feel the Shadowscapes Tarot was created out of a space of love and acceptance for the whole spectrum of human existence – the good and the not-so-good. There is no feeling of judgement, or any hard edges here. In fact, in my interview with this deck, Judgement came up as a limit of the deck. It was telling me “I can’t make decisions for you, I can only show you how things are”. But it was also a reassurance, “I’m not here to judge you”.

While there are only a few people of color in the deck, and I believe the artists vision ran closer to cis and heteronormative than I would ideally prefer, I find it wonderfully open to my own queer interpretation. I instantly found trans women, non-binary and androgynous people, and lesbian lovers in its images (these are purely my own projections of course). I immediately felt in tune with this deck.

Just a few of the androgynous, trans, and otherwise queer people I see in the Shadowscapes deck

The take-away is that some of the common advice about deck buying may be right for you.

But if your gut, or intuition tells you otherwise, listen to it. Trusting yourself and that you have inherent wisdom is a part of the tarot journey. Finding your way through the cacophony of internalized negative chatter to that inherent wisdom, true self, whatever you call it, or however you think of it, is part of the tarot journey. Beginning to trust myself was my first step in truly reading the tarot, opening up my creative and intuitive flow, and not just reciting traditional book meanings (the next step was the Alternative Tarot Course, which believe me, is a game changer). Read the advice, read the reviews, look at the pictures (there’s a lot of invaluable and unique deck info on this very website), but in the end, trust yourself.

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    • I just purchased the Dreaming Way a few weeks ago, and I’m really loving it! I wish the image here didn’t cover up half of the Lovers, as it’s one of my favorite cards in the deck: a woman in a green outfit and (strapped-on?) butterfly wings clutches the hands of two figures on either side of her, who are dressed in white. She could be Love bringing them together, yes–or she could be the third member of a poly trio!

      It also has a lot of fairly androgynous figures and really cute outfits and imagery to ponder (like why is the lobster in the Moon card red? Did the woman in the card cook it? Is she going to eat it??). Basically I love it, it is my new friend.

      • Elisabeth says:

        It is truly an awesome deck! It adds something to the world of tarot decks that I think is totally unique. I was drawn to the unique and extremely well done artwork by Kwon Shina, and the androgynous people. The concepts were created by Rome Choi who melded his background in Buddhism with tarot. This reflects my own interests, but I didn’t realize it until I after I bought it.

        I love that the person in the Moon card appears to be playing with the lobster. It has the potential to nip you and temporarily be a bit painful, but it’s totally worth playing around with (exploring with a rather childlike curiosity) whatever’s in your subconscious. I like your take on the Lovers card potentially being a poly trio! Whenever I get this card in this deck it often ends up meaning that all three people are aspects of myself that are in need of reconciliation.

  1. Mishka N. says:

    I’m glad you posted this-I had actually been having this exact problem. I bought the Universal-Waite, and this deck and I DO NOT get along. Initially, I wanted to buy the Rider-waite, deck, and didn’t realize I ordered the wrong one (I bought then online), until I got them in the mail. So now, I continue my journey.
    One question I do have is-how do I go about finding the right deck, without having to buy one deck after the other? I abhor clutter. Thanks again for the awesome post-have a wonderful day! 🙂

    • Elisabeth says:

      If there are stores locally that you can visit, that is a great option. You can hold the cards in your hands and look through each deck. Also, as Beth posted recently, you will be supporting local business and not the evil amazon. A lot of people don’t have that option though (self included). That’s why I spent hours upon hours perusing the decks that are available online. There were many that I liked, but I had to be really honest with myself about which ones were actually realistic to read with on a daily basis vs novelty ones that I just kinda, sorta liked the artwork. When I had it down to a few decks that’s when I did readings with what I had on hand and looked up the cards from each of the decks I was considering online. When I was able to consistently “get” the meaning from the Shadowscapes every time, I knew that was the one. That’s not to say you can’t have more than one deck that works well with you, but not everyone has the cash or desire to have lots of decks. I hope that helps and good luck!

      • Mishka N. says:

        Oh excellent! thanks so much. I’m glad I now have some direction to go in. I was a bit clueless for awhile. then I came across your site when I was researching something (what, I can’t remember) and then decided to follow you on Twitter. So glad I did-Thanks again! ^_^

    • Emily says:

      Thanks so much for posting this link to the Linestrider Tarot! I’m also deliberating about which deck to buy right now. While I feel pretty connected to my Universal Waite deck, I want to see what my other options are, and how readings might change if I use another deck. I’m mostly drawn to decks with ink and watercolor drawings, as well as ones with lots of animal imagery. Any decks where people have really strong, clear facial expressions turn me off–it just feels like it limits the interpretive possibilities. So now I’ve got it narrowed down between the Wild Unknown, the Wooden Tarot (, and the Linestrider tarot. Hmm….

      • lustreats says:

        Emily, did you pick a deck?

        And those of you with “stinkers” what have you done with them? I would like to find a way to pass my dud deck on to someone who’d appreciate it – or at least do something other than put it in the goodwill box – cause that just seems wrong.

        • Emily says:

          I haven’t picked a deck yet because I want to sit on the decision for a while. I’m going to buy myself a deck as an end-of-the-semester treat. I’m also hesitant to buy one because I don’t want to end up with a “stinker,” especially at $40USD stinker! If you have a local tarot reader, maybe you can ask them if they know anyone who’d like to buy it off you? Or I guess you could ask in a tarot forum. Seems like a good way to get the deck to someone who will really want to use it.

  2. JJ says:

    Ah well, we all go through this I think. I’ve got several “stinkers” as I call them, but sooner or later they pop out and you realize they aren’t so bad, or you have fun with them.

    I’ve always, always loved the Dreaming Way and the beautiful watercolours and fresh look of it. The book is terrific. Same with Shadowscapes, which took a lot of flak because she had taken existing art and fit it to a tarot deck. That never bothers me, I just enjoy the art. She wrote the book herself which is enjoyable.

    I still persist in buying new decks and using everything I can on my card blog. I rotate them and find that helps with a deeper connection to cards. I also find pairing them up to be a fresh sort of exercise in meaning and interpretation. I like to do comparisons across decks of specific cards–again, another way of finding meaning.

    I’ve got the Mystical Cats on backorder and I was just looking at the Lo Scarabeo 2015 releases and the Infinity Tarot looks interesting in both shape and artwork. Each one adds to the mix and makes it more interesting. I see many of the self-published decks I like (Gorgon Tarot Beth!!) but they are above my means so I am thankful that conventional publishers still offer affordable decks.

  3. Lisa L. says:

    It has been to my own witnessed experience that the RWS’s being geared to beginners in tarot-reading is really meant as being true in “most” cases, but not all. That being said, I fully understand the occasional inability to “get along” with any particular deck. For example, amongst my personal collection, I have an absolutely lovely Medieval Scapini Tarot that was given as a gift to my by my sister in law. The downside? While it is artistically delightful, I simply cannot make usage of this deck, and therefore it rests amongst my unused Tarot collection. This brings me to a thoughtful point– the Tarot chooses Us. We do not necessarily choose it.

  4. Julia says:

    Thank you for this. I haven’t brought a deck yet, stuck between the feeling I ‘should’ start with RWS as a beginner and the sense that I don’t feel especially drawn to it. After this, have decided to just go with The Wild Unknown Tarot, as it was the deck that made me really itch to try tarot in the first place.

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