Different readers favor different tarot decks. Understanding why helps show the complexity of this art form and divination medium.
Last fall, I found myself excited about a new tarot deck coming out. Christy C. Road had started work on her Next World Tarot years ago, and I’d been intrigued by it ever since. The cards are all beautiful, featuring her unique style of detailed illustrations as well as people of many races, sizes, abilities and ages. The cards are also a little larger than average, making them feel more like individual works of art, and also making them feel different when handling them for a reading. I was in love with the idea of the deck (I luckily received it as a gift before it sold out).
Over a decade after my introduction to tarot decks, I still find myself unsure about what makes a deck quite “right” for someone. More than anything else, it left me curious about tarot in general, and the people who use it.
So I decided to talk to different practitioners about which tarot decks make them tick and why. Their answers shed light on the fascinating variety in the world of tarot. After all, tarot is many things to many people.
1. Sam Riedel
Sam Riedel is a freelance journalist and trans activist.
How long have you been practicing tarot?
I started practicing earlier this year, probably about eight or nine months ago. I bought a deck for myself years ago but never got around to using it, and gifted it later. But a friend of mine did a reading for me at a New Year’s party last year and it affected me very deeply, so I decided to look into it again.
What’s your favorite tarot deck? And how did you find it?
My favorite deck is also my only deck. It’s a deck that was designed by Robin Scott, called the Urban Tarot. It’s a Thoth-based deck with entirely original art by Robin, all evoking different aspects of New York City and its citizens. Robin wants to revisit the idea that magic is something that lives exclusively in rural, “natural” environments — there’s magic in cities too.
Let’s talk about the illustrations specifically. Imagery is such a big part of tarot. What about these specific images speaks to you?
[Robin Scott’s] style is often bizarre and uses mixed media (physical and digital) to create images that are both grounded and surreal at once. You can also see how Robin grew as an artist over the 12 years it took to complete it.
Do you have any favorite cards?
I have a few favorites. The 14th Major Arcana is called “Art” in this deck, where other decks call it “Temperance”; it’s aesthetically the most beautiful piece in the deck, blending oil paint with digital drawing.
2. GeminEye Tarot
GeminEye Tarot are twin tarot readers in Detroit who have been practicing for 17 years. Their personal ethos is to “provide healing and accessibility to battle nihilism and environmental factors of poverty and oppression that disconnect our ability to visualize empowerment.”
What does your practice look like? Who do you read for?
We read for all people in all environments and from all walks of life. We read for the very, very poor and the very wealthy, for friends, family, loved ones, strangers, enemies, homeless people, rock-and-roll bands, moms and dads. There is no one our readings are not open to — anyone seeking counsel from the tarot is welcome.
Why do you use the deck that you use?
Many readers have different decks for different work. We use the Rider-Waite Smith for all of our readings.… The illustrator, Pamela Coleman Smith, was a gifted artist who grew up partially in Jamaica. She was a complete bohemian and an intellectual but totally embraced pop culture and was kind of an “it girl” in her day. I like the connection between this lighthearted, playful woman and her relationship to occultism. There’s real wisdom in enjoying life and transcending pain, and her spirit comes through.
Do you think this deck is particularly suited for any specific type of tarot work?
The Rider-Waite Smith is adaptable for all types of readings. We do not feel as connected to themed decks or more modern illustrations. They do not carry the same resonance…because they do not have the history that the Rider-Waite Smith deck does.
Does the deck have any limitations that you’ve noticed?
The archetypes of the deck need to serve as a reflection of the person receiving the tarot, or their potential of achieving this image. However, the imagery of the Rider-Waite Smith is all white and uses gender binaries. A spiritual ideal should not be represented as any ruling class. However, the metaphysical nature of the cards will never truly be able to be captured by rendering. A rendering of occultism will always be diluted by the biases, corruption and faults of humanity. It is a byproduct of humanity and divinity touching shoulders.
What else can you tell us about your practice?
Tarot is a tool for communicating with the divine. It is a tool for anyone to gain closeness to justice, especially in these dark times. I try to never lose sight of that ideal and hope that also others will use it to gain wisdom rather than power.
3. Brittany Bella Graham
Brittany Bella Graham is an LA-based journalist and marketing consultant whose favorite deck is from Morgan Greer.
Individual tarot practices can vary widely. What does yours look like? Do you read for yourself or others?
I primarily read only for myself, but occasionally I’ll read for close friends or family…. I like to do weekly card pulls for myself and then leave the cards on my altar so as my week progresses I can track my progress.
Do you have a preference for any specific spreads?
The way I read spreads is a bit different from the traditional way of reading tarot. I’ll pull several cards, but I don’t always leave them in the order they were drawn. I use my intuition to interpret where the cards belong, and then I’ll organize them into past, present and future tenses.
Does the Morgan Greer deck have any particular limitations?
None that really stand out, but I wish the deck contained more illustrations of people of color. There are some, but not many.
Do you have a favorite card? What do you love about it?
Definitely. The High Priestess holds a special place in my heart because it always reminds me to go back to the center, or to the place where all knowledge, self-awareness and purpose stem from. It’s a reminder that deep inside, I already know the answers and I already have the power. Kind of like at the end of The Wizard of Oz — once Dorothy realizes she always had the power to go home and all she had to do was click her heels three times.
4. Chet Clover
Chet Clover is a genderqueer poet, parent, kitchen witch and “washed-up punk” from Detroit, Michigan.
How long have you been practicing tarot?
I first got acquainted with tarot four years ago, but I’ve been a more dedicated student of the cards for about a year and a half.
Do you have a favorite tarot deck? What’s great about it?
My favorite deck to work with is called Hidden Waters Tarot, created by Ana Tourian, a minimalist work of art visually inspired by the Rorschach Inkblot Test. The titles and numbers follow the traditional Rider-Waite Smith structure, although there are no correct or incorrect visual interpretations of the cards…. As a genderqueer reader, I’m also thrilled about the androgyny of abstract images, and how easily it lends itself to gender-neutral and gender-expansive readings. Truthfully, I think Rorschach himself is a bit corny and dated, but I’m on board with the framework of tarot as a tool upon which we project our own subconscious insights. What’s special to me about Hidden Waters is that this aspect is so delightfully transparent and out in the open.
Is there any tarot work this deck is particularly suited to?
I think the Hidden Waters deck is especially well suited for doing solo reading, due to its boundless subjectivity.
Have you noticed any particular limitations with this deck?
The main limitation of this deck is that it doesn’t strike me as a great teaching tool for people just starting out, or at least for folks who want to be fluent across decks…. Some readers may find that the lack of definitive settings, characters and symbols don’t give them enough of a story line to follow. Abstract tarot decks are a sort of niche preference and definitely not for everyone.
Many Things to Many People
Tarot cards can be many things: an art form, a spiritual practice and a glimpse into hidden knowledge. Hopefully amazing artists continue to create beautiful and complex tarot decks so that practitioners can keep finding the ones that fit each individual best.
Which tarot decks do you love? Share your favorites in the comments!