In undergrad, I read The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino and really loved the idea of using cards to tell stories. Though I had a passing interest to learn more about tarot, I didn’t buy my first deck until 2016 when I stumbled upon an article focusing on queer-inclusive decks that featured illustrations from a forthcoming publication by an artist known then only as Trungles. Since I couldn’t buy that deck, which I was convinced was THE one for me, I scoured archives looking for something that I could use in the meantime. I settled on the Dreaming Way tarot and since then I have discovered a lot more about what I gravitate toward in terms of reading practice and deck design.
At first, as with many other disciples, I was very reliant on the little white book to assist me with interpreting what the upright and reverse meanings might mean. I dug up spread ideas on Pinterest and Tumblr. This was especially true for the occasions when I read for other people: close friends, my partner (now wife), and penpals. There were many an occasion in which I googled Labyrinthos to help me discern what the cards might mean!
Even back then, I maintained one position that has only become more fixed for me: I do not believe that these cards enable me to divine the future, possess some kind of inherent power to themselves, or have any sort of sentience to them. As Benebell Wen puts it in Holistic Tarot, the cards are tools. For me, when I use my cards, I am entering into a space of self-reflection and meditation. I only get meaning out of the cards based on what I give to them. They help me process and consider, especially when I set an intention for drawing them.
I could just as easily do this by choosing a writing prompt from a list or using a therapy workbook or something else along those lines. But because tarot cards also contain beautiful illustrations and often are part of a bigger narrative within the deck, they give me a base to structure my thoughts around. It’s a more interesting and stimulating method for me to do what is essentially a similar process.
Once I embraced this, I moved further and further away form traditional Rider-Waite Smith guides and numerological/elemental correspondences. When I flip a card over, my first task is intuitive interpretation: what stands out to me in the card? What associations do I have with the images? What sparks in my imagination?
Because of these shifts, I have gradually stopped reading for other people. When I read for myself, it’s very personal; reading for someone else just feels like I’m guiding a therapy session for them and since I’m not a licensed therapist, it makes me uncomfortable to do. I would rather teach someone else how to read for themselves, explain my process, and encourage them to find their own path.
Tarot is fun! It’s nifty to have little decks of art that I can experiment with for journaling. I want to use them more often for composing little stories, too.
As of May 2022, I own nine tarot decks and one oracle deck with one kickstarter expected to ship in 2023 (The Mini Mice Tarot.) There are a few decks that I am interested in right now, but I'm not looking to make any immediate purchases.
The Kawaii Tarot by Diana Lopez: This is the only deck that I have received as a gift! My sister-in-law sent it to me for my birthday a few years ago. It comes in a big pastel pink keepsake box with a pretty detailed guidebook with sample spreads. The cardstock is thin and flexible and the size is closer to poker-size (narrower and shorter than a standard deck - easy to hold in my tiny baby hands.) The art is very minimal and functions for me more like flashcards. It's a good deck if you're aiming to learn correspondences and like the pastel vibe, but pip decks and I don't get on super well for readings.
The Dreaming Way Tarot By Rome Choi and Kwon Shina: The first deck that I purchased remains such a clear and easy reader. The card stock is a little bit thicker and I am itching to modify mine by trimming down the white borders (possibly the text as well?) I love that the character designs are fairly adrogynyous even if they do lean fair-skinned and thin. The deck has a lot of whimsy and just enough differentiation from traditional Rider-Waite that I could learn the original method of reading while also wandering through my own interpretations.
Tarot of the Divine By Yoshi Yoshitani: Absolutely gorgeous color story and theming. The blend of "eastern and western" mythologies lends itself for such a rich reading experience. Even when I draw a card whose source material is unfamiliar to me, I am still able to read the scene and work through my gut impression of what is happening in the image. Once I cross-check with the guidebook, I can merge the information together foran even better reading experience. The linen cardstock shuffles great and I don't mind that my deck is bowing from riffle shuffling. It gives it character!
The Ink Witch Tarot by Eric Maille: One of my newer aquisitions through the indie shop, A Riffle in Time. The card stock and print quality isn't my favorite, but the cards shuffle easily and I find the artwork very inspiring. Similar to Yoshitani's tarot, Maille blends mythologies together and even incorporates modern elements with ancient iconography. Though I don't own theme, he also sells a few alternate cards to further customize the deck; I appreciate the inclusivity featured in that pack. There are so many clever decisions hiding in the majors and minors already and I am eager to not only buy the Paper Lenormand but his forthcoming Oracle deck as well.
The Very Little Tarot by Trung le Nguyen: I signed up as a patron for Trungles at first so I could purchase a copy of this deck before it hit Weejapeeja for sale. This is a charming pip deck that has just enough going on that I can still get a detailed reading out of it. This is good for quick reads, daily draws, and casual journaling. It's also just really stinking cute. I will probably buy every deck Trungles releases, because they are one of my favorite artists.
Ophidia Rosa Tarot by Leila and Olive: If I'm being completely honest with myself, this deck is very difficult for me to read with since it is entirely intuitive with abstract imagery that still has a pippish quality to it. But the art is so beautiful that I can keep pulling it out, giving it a shuffle, and pulling a spread anyway. Last year, I read with it daily in February and that was a helpful exercise to connect with it more deeply. I hope that my Tarot Study project will encourage me to find my own pathway into working with this one.
The Star Spinner Tarot by Trung le Nguyen: This is my favorite deck that I own. Whenever I am unsure what I want to read with, I pull this off the shelf. I am so familiar with the artwork at this point, that I know my impression of the cards on sight. The colors inspire me. The composition of the figures inspire me. The subtle and overt nods to fairy tales inspire me. Some of the edges of the cards are starting to chip and wear with use. One day, I might actually buy a back-up of this one, but it's not at risk of going out of print any time soon.
The Bumbleberry Hollow Tarot by Faith Vervara: This was my second time kickstarting a project by Vervara (the first was for a plushie of Inkeri - the goat on the cover of the boxart.) For the price, this deck came with a lot of good features: sturdy cardstock, gold-foiled edges, a magnetic closure box, and a drawstring bag. However, the suits are pips (CUTE pips - don't get me wrong!) and the major arcana follow Rider-Waite a touch too closely. Sometimes I look at the cards and don't feel that inspired. But I do enjoy it as an art object.
Oak, Ash, and Thorn Tarot by Three Trees Tarot: I pined after this deck for over a year and finally treated myself to it after completing a major work-related task. It's just as stunning in person as I imagined and the petal-matte finish of the cards is fantastic. At first, I was wary of shuffling the deck because I didn't want to risk bending, scratching, or dirtying the cards, but I am getting past that inclination. The scenes have so many great details to them and the descriptions in the pdf guidebook are so gentle. Since this deck is not designed with reversals in mind, it's a pretty healing deck to work with which is exactly what I need for where I'm at in life right now.
Woodland Wardens Oracle by Jessica Roux: This is my first foray into using an oracle deck and I am still adjusting to how they fit into the kinds of spreads and journaling I do. I love pairing these cards with OAT - they just seem made for each other. I just need to make a more conscious effort to use it, to reflect more on how these aniaml-flower pairings make me think and feel.
The Spacious Tarot and Expansion Deck by Annie Ruygt and Carrie Mallon: This was such a thoughtful birthday gift from my wife! Since unboxing it, I have used it almost daily including assisting her with spreads. The deck is everything I wanted in a daily reader: easy reader, meditative, against the grain in thoughtful ways, no gender "noise." The expansion is great for doing lunar readings since I can add the corresponding zodiac sign into my deck. It might be too soon to declare this my favorite all-time tarot, but just know that it's up there.
There are dozens of books, websites, and videos dedicated to guiding readers through the symbolic meaning of the Rider Waite Smith system. As such, that’s not the focus of this project.
As an intuitive reader, I’ve found it harder to find resources geared toward helping me read tarot without focusing too heavily on the white flower or infinity, the gender of pages and knights, or numerology in general. As mentioned above, for me, tarot is art before it is anything else.
In literary studies, reader response calls on us to first articulate our own connection and understanding to a text. From there, we can enrich our close reading by considering additional layers of meaning such as historical context, theoretical interpretations, authorial intent, etc. This is the primary way in which I engage with tarot: what do I see, how does it make me feel, what can I connect it to?
To deepen my own tarot practice, I endeavor to develop a comparative study of my cards one at a time beginning with The Fool and ending with the King of Coins. My purpose is to exercise my close reading muscles, familiarize myself with the cards that I already own, and to identify the gaps in my own knowledge.
The next phase of this project will be to work my decks one at a time perhaps studying all of the majors together and then each of the suits.
This is a massive undertaking and I will likely continue editing and expanding each draft as new thoughts come to me. If you would like to support me, please consider buying me a ko-fi to cheer me on!
And if you attempt a similar project, please let me know! I would love to peek at your notes and see how our resonances with the tarot differ, especially in relation to our respective libraries.
Since I came into tarot when I was already working on reigning in makeup purchases, I had to develop a criteria for what decks would be worth actually owning rather than just showing appreciation for the efforts of the makers. Though I never finished the minor, I have had a long interest in art history and even though I am not especially artistically-inclined myself, I follow a lot of artists online which have both informed my sense of visual aesthetics. Now that I have a modest library of cards, I also have more opinions about the tactile experience and also just how I prefer to read.
Which is to say that the aspects listed under my “what I avoid” section aren’t universally or inherently bad: they’re just not what have historically or practically appealed to me. I am open to finding decks that challenge my sense of aesthetics, but keeping in mind what I am heavily drawn to helps stop me from overspending beyond my means.
Aesthetics I Embrace
Illustration: By far my strongest preference. Though I have a few more realistic, painterly decks that I love as well, illustrative styles are really what I can immerse myself in the most. Whether they make use of detailed line work like The Star Spinner Tarot or have a simple, children’s book vibe like the Mini Mice Tarot, I tend to relate to figures (people, animals) more when they are not photo-realistic and have a softer, rounder use of shape. This has been one of the easiest ways for me to pass on decks that might otherwise intrigue me (Hush Tarot, Ethereal Visions, Light Seer’s.) I love cartoons and manga and prefer the human figures in my deck to have that kind of appearance to them as a reader.
Folk, Fairytale, and Mythology: This is more of a thematic aesthetic, but I love when tarot dabbles into older forms of storytelling especially as a way to embrace their own cultural heritage, inject additional diversity, and to trouble the RWS method of visual symbolism. It frustrates me when some Tarot YouTube reviews will knock back a deck because they aren’t familiar with the source material, especially if they didn’t bother to read the guidebook. The number of negative reviews I sifted through in response to the Star Spinner Tarot because they didn’t “get” a take on a card was incredibly frustrating, especially since Trung’s deck resists colonial interpretation in many ways. When working with Tarot of the Divine, I do find myself needing to pull out the guidebook fairly often to refresh my memory of a certain mythology or folk tale that I am less familiar with, but a good deck can still light my imagination on its own.
Animals: As a nonbinary person, I find that I am able to relate to animals quite easy because they do not tend to be gendered in most decks. While I am always looking for decks that resist gender binaries in other ways, this is one of those categories where I can readily find figures to relate to without having to even think about gender attributes of the arcana. Nine times out of ten, an animal deck is an easier sell for me than one with human figures or botanicals for that matter. Of course, this means that I need to reign in which ones I end up actually purchasing..
Environment and Character Focused Compositions: As a reader, I love detailed environments—bonus points if the character is actively engaging in their environment in some way rather than just existing within it. My eye is always bouncing between the central focal point and the smaller details of the scene. Depending on the full spread, I might be able to notice unexpected patterns or oppositions. If a design is too sparse, too minimal, then I have a completely different reading experience. I can still get on fine with a clean, focused portrait or a singular symbolic object, but I enjoy my practice more if I get to exercise my English major skills to “close read” the cards.
Queer Approaches to Traditionally Gendered Cards: If a deck leans heavily into goddess/the divine feminine OR into a very heteronormative lens (see most erotic decks, though I have found at least one great queer one that may be on my wishlist) then I am generally turned away from a deck. Queering the tarot is an important part of my reading practice and when a deck is made with this view in mind already, especially when it is made by a queer/trans person, then it provides me even more inspiration and euphoria.
Aesthetics I Avoid
Heavy Religious Focus: I’m an atheist and tarot is an entirely secular practice for me. Aside from a few passages required for school, most of what I have learned about biblical references is through cultural osmosis as I have never read the text. So not only do overtly religious decks make me a bit uncomfortable (especially Christian/Catholic ones), but so much of their details can be lost on me as well since it’s not a visual/symbolic language that is second nature to me. This takes all angel tarots of the table for me too. They just don’t do anything for me for a number of reasons!
Affirmation Decks: Key words on cards are generally okay with me, but I cannot get behind words of affirmation or inspiring quotes, especially when done in lieu of including any image whatsoever. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who find these comforting and helpful, but they do nothing for me.
Collagework: For this one… it’s not that I’m wholly against collage as a style. I’ve seen artists make beautiful compositions with this approach even outside of tarot! The reason why I tend to back away from collage decks is because they tend to rely much more on photography, which I do not want in my tarot practice because it usually doesn’t spark my imagination enough. There are many decks I have encountered that are so cool with what they do (The Pinoy Practical Magic Tarot, The Lionness Oracle) but I just know that I wouldn’t connect with them as deeply as I do my other decks. As with fandom decks, I also feel like the market is super saturated with collage work right now so avoiding them helps me stave on that itch to buy more stuff.
Photography: As much as I appreciate photography as an art form, it’s not something that I connect to as readily from a reading perspective despite the processes of reading a painting and a photo theoretically being quite similar in terms of lighting, focal points, etc., but there’s just more of a disconnect for me. They feel like specific, real people and not like characters, archetypes. I’m too aware of the contours of their face, the real mass of their bodies. Though I appreciate what they can do for inclusivity and diversity, at the end of the day I need a deck that I enjoy reading so that it doesn’t go to waste on my bookcase.
Pip Decks: Now… I do have a couple pip decks and there are also a couple on my wishlist because I’m a clown. But generally speaking, the minor arcana can quickly become useless to me if it is a 100% true pip deck. So if, for example, the seven of cups is just seven cups… I’m screwed because I don’t rely on numerology and elemental readings to guide me. Yoshitaka Amano’s Tarot has a wonderfully gorgeous major arcana, but I wouldn’t be able to read with the deck. It would purely exist on my shelf as a collector’s piece and I don’t want that for me. I can work with a pip-is deck that has some additional signifiers, but a pure-pip is a no from me.
RWS Clones: Most decks on the market follow RWS to some degree, but I’m talking about decks that heavily rely on the symbolism, figure pose, and overall composition used in the classic Rider deck. I don’t own a copy of the original deck for a reason: it’s not inspiring or aesthetically pleasing to me. And while I have seen some clones that are very cute, I wouldn’t spend my money on them over an original composition. The Modern Witch Tarot? The Luna Sol Tarot? The Queer Tarot? Super cute, lovely color palette, very cool, but pass, pass, and pass.
Hyper-Minimalism: I’ve learned my lesson with The Kawaii Tarot. Too much minimalism just does not work for me. If a tarot or oracle has intentional, evocative objects or figures, I can still find a purpose for the card either on its own as an amplifier when paired with a richer deck. But generally speaking, I am wary of this style since I am likely not to use them enough.
I'm always trying to reign in my desire to attain more so I will share a running list of what has caught my attention and whether I will realistically acquire them any time soon. To help keep this into perspective, I have sorted my wishlist into four tiers: (1) Options for Next Purchase, (2) Strong Considerations, (3) Admiring From Afar, and (4) Do I Even Want This?
If you are interested in being a patron to fuel my writing, you can access my Amazon Wishlist here for mass market decks or buy me a ko-fi and leave a note if you would like it to go towards funding a specific purchase or project.
Tier I: Options for Next Purchase
These are the decks that I am currently researching and thinking about. Theoretically, if they are listed here then they I need to have sorted through a few key feelings such as how they will fit into my current deck rotation, whether I have something that would already serve a similar purpose, or if they break any of my aesthetic/reading preferences that might prevent me from getting pragmatic use of the cards.
Fyodor Pavlov Tarot by Fyodor Pavlov
Currently on pre-order with a release date of October 2022, this deck is so fascinating. While it adheres a little close to RWS for my liking, and the bold line tattoo-style isn’t usually my aesthetic, I can’t help being attracted to works by queer/trans artists. This might have my favorite Empress card (the spilling jug? Scandalous) and the Lovers are utterly delightful. I’m so unaccustomed to seeing trans bodies represented in tarot decks and it makes my heart soar to be able to see gender fluidity in just about every card. I think I’ll wait and see if the price drops a bit once it releases to the mass market. Otherwise, this one might sit on my wishlist for a spell, but it will be mine one day!
Tier II: Strong Considerations
While I am not yet ready to spend money on decks in this tier, I’m still heavily considering them one day. There are a variety of factors that might lead into this such as not having done enough research into the design or even just the cost itself. Indie decks can especially wrack up in terms of pricing so I have to be deliberate with timing such purchases.
The Strange Beast Tarot by Shing Yin Khor
I squealed out loud when I saw this announcement on Twitter because I love acquiring tarot decks from artists that I already support. Even though I wasn’t able to play it in real time, I have all of my notes for Khor’s Remember August keepsake solo-journaling game and really want to play A Mending one day when I’m able to print out the map onto cloth and acquire all of the other materials I’ll need. The Strange Beast Tarot has a similar vibe to Joanna Nelson’s deck but more mature and grungier. It’s playful, curious, quirky, and makes me happy in a way that I haven’t felt in a while looking at all the up coming releases lately. Since Khor is only about a third of the way through the initial design process, I know this one will be a ways off (but hopefully still next year? Fingers crossed) but it is absolutely on my radar.
Tier III: Admiring From Afar
As with other hobbies, I often have a “fantasy self” that wants something because I would like to be the kind of person who gets use out of it. This tier is for decks I want to acknowledge that I have admiration for even though I am unlikely to physically acquire them.
Southern Gothic Oracle by Stacey Williams-Ng
I’m from Southern California, which is very, very different kind of southern experience from the one depicted in this deck. In fact, I haven’t even read that much Southern Gothic literature (though wouldn’t mind expanding my horizons!) My interest in this deck is chiefly aesthetic in nature. It’s beautifully painted and super evocative of such a specific place and time. The price tag is a bit high for me at the moment and given that this is a cultural experience quite different to my own, I’m not sure whether it would be an easy reader for me. I’m still not ready to let go of the fantasy though and I’m eagerly watching the development of Williams-Ng’s mass market tarot deck.
The Threadbound Oracle by by Numinous Spirit Press
An oracle deck themed after writing and books by a nonbinary artist? And the box is shaped like a book? Truly one after my heart. I’m still pretty new to incorporating oracle cards into my routine so I’m trying not to spend money on indie decks since they are more expensive as an investment. Even so, I like keeping tabs on queer decks and this one seems really well thought out with multiple approaches to reading, a thorough guidebook, the novel tie-in.. I’m intrigued and it’s worth a shout out even if I don’t end up buying it.
Totally Unofficial Adventure Time Tarot Deck by Katherine Hillier
Even though the art style isn’t 100% my favorite (I would prefer something softer, cuter though not necessarily a 1:1 match for the original show), I think the creator did a good job of finding intriguing associations between a broad range of characters and each card, including the suits. It does make me happy to see flip throughs of the deck and I think I would get decent use out of it. Shipping from the UK is quite pricy, but the cost of the base deck is pretty low to off-set that. At the moment, I’ve decided to pass on Tarot of the Unknown (even had a chance to buy it in person!) but I’m still thinking about this one…
Oracle, Dauphins et Baleines by Frédérique Pichard and Gemma Capdevila Vinaja
This was shown in a recent video by The Waves of Your Soul and I’m sure it might pop up again in her French Tarot and Oracle Decks series. I love animals and have been wanting a more summery, watery deck… the artwork is serene and beautiful. But would it be an wasy reader? Would I enjoy actually pulling the cards rather than just looking at them? I’m getting on well with the Woodland Wardens Oracle so I want to believe that I would… Either way, this would be a summer-leaning deck for me and I don’t need to make any decisions about it right away.
Le Tarot aux ramures étranges by de Rouxalis and Alisa Marazyuk
This deck is so ethereal and lush. It’s very much like you’ve stepped into an enchanted forest and have become one with that realm. The color palette is so pretty. There’s just a lot that I love in the imagery and aesthetic, with one caveat: all of the bodies are nude femme figures, mainly thin and light skin (if not exclusively?) and that does give me some hesitation. It’s not a deck I’m jumping to buy right now, but I want to reflect on it a bit more to determine whether that is an outright deal breaker for me.
Tier IV: Do I Even Want This?
Sometimes there are decks that catch my attention, likely because of the previous category, but I’m not even sure if I like them? I don’t know how to explain this haha Maybe it’s that I like the idea of them, or saw a cool picture of someone’s spread… but I don’t even know that my fantasy self wants them.
Antique Anatomy Tarot by Claire Goodchild
I don’t do pip decks. I keep telling this to myself whenever I get tempted by this one. With Halloween just days away, I especially need to ward myself away from impulsively shopping for decks that “fit the season” instead of ones that fit my reading style and personal aesthetic. This is a classic for so many people for good reason, but that doesn’t mean that I need to own it as well. I haven’t written it off entirely, but it’s a little easier to take a step back when I know there are decks that suit my style on the horizon.
Earthly Souls & Spirits Moon Oracle by Terri Foss
I’ve already decided that I’m not going to buy this deck, but I still want to write about how I reached that decision since sometimes I can get swept up in the idea of acquiring something shiny and new. I’ve seen a few people pair this oracle with various tarot decks and the colorful backgrounds, cats, moons… there’s something kind of enchanting about it, especially when I saw someone on Instagram combine it with the Spacious Tarot (my favorite deck.) But.. I think the faces look creepy. I’m not sure the guidebook is really suited to me. Some of the key words don’t really gel with the images on the card. It still has that feel of being a collection of art combined into a deck rather than individual pieces that were intentional made to be read together. If this were ever at a bargain price, I might still consider it later on down the line, but I think for now I’m going to shelve this one.