Let’s say you’ve never touched a deck before in your life but want to learn Tarot. Or maybe you’ve been reading for years and want to know what to recommend to students. Please don’t automatically reach for the standard Rider-Waite! There are better options!
I know them are fightin’ words for some of us, so let me explain.
What makes a good beginner deck?
New students aren’t looking to do professional readings right off the bat, so they don’t need to look for decks with that in mind. Instead, they need a deck that will get them familiar with Tarot structure, ground them in basic meanings and associations, and introduce them to intuitive card interpretation. Once those skills are firmly in place the student can move on to more challenging decks and broaden their basic skill set.
In my opinion, the best decks for beginners hit the following few points:
- A good deck consists of the standard 78 cards, broken into the standard Major and Minor Arcanas with Court cards. The names and associations can deviate from the traditional, and the Majors can be reordered, but they all need to be there.
- A good deck is approachable. There should be something about it that is familiar, comforting, or interesting enough to immediately engage the person using it. This is completely up to individual preference.
- A good deck ideally relies on stories instead of complex symbolism to convey meaning. If meaning is conveyed symbolically, the symbols need to be carefully chosen, easily understood, and as minimal as possible.
- The art of a good deck is at least moderately attractive, and all labels are clear. This is, again, a wholly personal choice.
- It’s readily available and affordable (preferably under $25, but definitely under $50).
So which decks hit all the notes?
Recommended Beginner Decks
These are my nine beginner picks. A few might even surprise you! They run the gamut of themes and approaches while meeting my requirements and staying true to the essence of Tarot.
They are, in alphabetical order:
The Beginner’s Guide to Tarot Kit (aka the Sharman-Caselli Tarot)
If a student must go with a straight-up RWS-style this is my absolute favorite of the bunch. The creators deliberately stripped out most of the esoteric Golden Dawn stuff and simplified the presentation. They wound up with a deck that has the feel and associations of the original Rider-Waite without all the extraneous bits that can confuse newcomers. The book works well as an intro to Tarot, too.
Three cards from the Beginner’s Guide to Tarot, a simplified and approachable version of the Rider-Waite.
Available here for about $30, book included.
The Bright Idea Deck
Marketing-wise this isn’t a Tarot deck (even though it totally is). It’s been pitched to businesses and professionals as a way to “generate ideas, expand creative expression, and stimulate thought processes”. As a result, there’s almost no esoterica in this deck, making it uniquely accessible to beginners and those turned off by overt mysticism.
The Bright Idea Tarot. Here we see this deck’s interpretation of the Magician, the Star, and Justice.
One of my favorite aspects of the deck is that the companion book offers more open-ended questions than it does rock-solid meanings. That encourages the reader to engage their intuition from Day One, as opposed to having to learn over time to trust themselves enough to step away from the book when necessary.
This Tarot is fantastic for practical application. It’s not very suited for deep spiritual reflection, though. Students may also find it challenging to move from this to another deck, especially with the way the Minor Arcana is streamlined. For those attracted to this one, I’d suggest also eventually getting a more traditional Tarot for meditation purposes. That’ll make it easier to transition to other decks when you want to spread your wings. I review it in depth here.
Available here for about $15, book included.
The Gaian Tarot
The Gaian Tarot shows people experiencing spiritual moments during daily activities and while out in nature. Those students focusing on conscious living and environmentalism in the modern world might find this to be a very comfortable deck. It is softened yet powerful. It’s also inclusive, which is very welcome in a Tarot deck!
The Gaian Tarot. The Guardian of Water is one of my favorites in the deck, the Three of Earth shows a modern kitchen, and the Strength card resonates with serene power.
The Gaian Tarot is very Rider-Waite-like in structure, but some of the card names have been changed to reflect the deck’s theme. The Court cards were carefully balanced for gender (two men and two women for each rank), which I like, and associated ranks have been changed to stages of life (Child/Explorer/Guardian/Elder). Traditional suits are dropped in favor of elements: Pentacles, Swords, Wands, and Cups become Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The book is solid, too, so bonus.
Available here for about $30, book and awesome box included.
The Mythic Tarot
This is my standard recommendation for beginners. It’s based on Greek mythology, giving those who have studied it a nice sense of familiarity with the deck. Major Arcana and Court cards are associated with a specific story or mythic figure, while the pip cards take us step-by-step through a story associated with the given suit. That makes the cards much easier to remember!
The Mythic Tarot. Here the Lovers card depicts the Judgment of Paris, The Star shows Pandora opening the box, and The High Priestess evokes the whole story of Persephone’s abduction.
I’ve already done a fairly in-depth review of this deck here. The original, which I prefer art-wise, requires a bit of hunting down and can be expensive. However, the NEW Mythic Tarot, with “updated” art, is available here for under $10.
Ideally, I’d suggest getting the New Mythic for the book, ditching the cards, and replacing them with this deck. It’s the original art with German labels, which I don’t find to be a problem at all, and costs $9 including shipping. Put the two together and you’ve got an AMAZING set for less that $20 total. That’s a bargain I think we can all get behind.
The Pagan Tarot
Ok, the Pagan Tarot is one of a kind. The structure and meanings of the Rider-Waite are maintained, but all the art is thoroughly and completely modern. There are cars and computers in here! It focuses more on scenes from day-to-day life than esoterica, which makes this deck easily relatable for those new to Tarot. It’s also very Wiccan in focus, so that may or may not appeal.
The Pagan Tarot. Here we have a fantastic modern interpretation of the Hermit, a relatable Nine of Pents, and a Death card showing the transition of between “old self” and “new self” that happens during initiation.
As a note for those interested, this deck is careful to balance genders among the Court cards. Not surprising for a Wiccan-based deck, but still worth mentioning. I don’t personally like how it’s done (Swords and Wands for men, Cups and Pentacles for women), but I do appreciate that an attempt was made in that direction.
Available here for about $30, book included.
The Tell Me Tarot
Think of this deck as a Rider-Waite with training wheels. The artwork is vastly simplified and interpretation suggestions are actually written on the face of every card! This makes getting started much less frustrating – going back and forth to a book sucks. This deck doesn’t even bother with a book. Instead, it comes with a couple of extra cards that give the barest of basics and lets the cards clarify themselves.
The Tell Me Tarot. On the face, we can see both a cartoony version of traditional Rider-Waite symbolism as well as some text. The traditional name is given, as is a keyword and card alignment (whether it’s generally a more positive or negative card). After that come interpretation suggestions.
This is definitely a transition deck. It’s excellent for beginners and sets them up well to move on to other Rider-Waite decks, but they will need to move on – and fairly quickly at that – if they want to get deeper into the cards. Students may find it worth the investment, though.
Available here for about $20.
The Science Tarot
In the Science Tarot, traditional mysticism has been exchanged for scientific theory. It works remarkably well. Also, since we did learn science in school and didn’t learn mysticism it’s wonderful for the beginner. We might have to think back to our school days or look up things that we’ve forgotten, but the meanings come across brilliantly.
While it’s set up in Rider-Waite fashion, the art and associations are quite different. Here the Major Arcana have all been associated with scientific stories or concepts, such as Schrodinger’s Cat for the Wheel of Fortune. The traditional Pentacles/Swords/Wands/Cups suits are instead Magnifying Glasses/Scalpels/Bunsen burners/Beakers. Court ranks have been exchanged theme-wise as well while keeping standard meanings, and each one is associated with a famous scientist. There’s even some gender exchange in the Court, which is always a plus for me.
The Science Tarot. Here we have a Major, Court, and Minor card.
As a bonus for the scientific and mathematically minded there are equations and formulae scattered all throughout the art. Have fun finding them!
Available here for about $25.
The Whimsical Tarot
Don’t let the cutesy art fool you – this is a fantastic beginner Tarot that can grow with you. Designed by the same woman responsible for the classic Hanson-Roberts Tarot, all of the images here are drawn from fairy tales and nursery rhymes. That gives us access to a ton of nuance we already know!
The cards that can scare Tarot novices are rendered in a friendlier fashion, too. For example, Death is Sleeping Beauty, the Devil shows Pinnochio as a puppet, and the Tower is the Wolf blowing down the house of the Little Pigs. We know that the situation was transitory for the characters in all of those stories, which reassures us that the scary stuff can pass for us as well.
The Whimsical Tarot. Notice how the label for the Major Arcana card isn’t static. The numbers are, but the labels are placed differently depending on the card.
I will say that the book is pretty lame, though. It’s super small and the descriptions are brief. It doesn’t even tell us which story the card comes from! Not to worry – this list gives us the stories in case we can’t figure them out, and we can use those to flesh out the sparse meanings. There’s also a full-length book you can get for this, but it’s so pricey I wouldn’t bother unless you love the deck. It’s certainly not necessary.
Available here for about $20.
The Wizards Tarot
Into Harry Potter? Give this deck a whirl! From the get-go, we’re pulled onto the campus of a Hogwarts-esque school called the Mandrake Academy. Each of the Major Arcana cards is reimagined as a Professor of various magickal disciplines, while the Rider-Waite-inspired Minor Arcana cards show students of the school. The Court cards depict elemental creatures associated with the suit.
Three cards from the Wizards Tarot. The Initiate is the Fool, starting their magickal education. We can see Mandrake Academy in the background of the Six of Cups. The Hanged Man is also the Professor of Runes, particularly fitting in this location when we consider Norse lore about the origin of the runes.
One of the coolest things about this deck is the companion book, which is a pretty entertaining combo of Tarot guidebook and Basic Magick 101. Each Major Arcana card teaches both a practical magickal technique and has its very own associated spread. How cool is that?
Available here, and the most expensive one I saw was $30. Make absolutely sure you get the one with the 200+ page book that came out in 2011, too. The 2014 version’s 80-page booklet just isn’t the same.
Have any others you’d like to recommend? Let me know in the comments!