There are literally thousands of Tarot decks in print and more are created every single day. Some are faithful reproductions of old decks, some offer variations that stick very close to original source decks, and some challenge traditional structure or imagery or both.
It can all be a bit overwhelming. Luckily, Tarot decks can be loosely sorted into what I call “style families”. These families group cards based on card pattern or design, and sorting cards this way is surprisingly helpful.
For starters, knowing the styles we like (and don’t) can help us quickly zero in on the decks we’re actually interested in. With so many decks on the market, this can be a huge time-saver!
Furthermore, decks within the same style tend to read like others in that style (with the exception of decks with new approaches, discussed below). One TdM deck reads like another, RWS decks read the same, etc. Sure details can differ from one deck to the next, but the general gist of things is present. If we see a new or interesting deck in a style we’re already comfy with, we know the new one will be stylistically comfy too. Switching between styles can be an adjustment, however, and knowing that in advance helps us avoid confusion and disappointment.
There are five general style families altogether*, plus related-but-not-Tarot Oracle Cards. Let’s check them out!
This style of Tarot dates back to the mid-1500s, when Tarot cards were still emerging from the cards used to play a game called Trionfi (“triumphs”, another word for “trumps”). About 15 decks – none complete – have survived. They were commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and later by his successor (and son-in-law) Francesco Sforza, hence their name.
Fit for a Duke, these cards were meticulously crafted with precious materials. Members of the family are depicted in the cards, too, like little portraits. They are wonderful for collectors and inspirational for artists, who either use them as a jumping-off point for their own work in other styles or create compatible cards to get a full deck. We can thank these early Visconti-Sforza decks for ideas like the visual style and card numbering, both of which are important to the Tarot we use today.
Tarot de Marseilles
The Tarot de Marseilles (TdM) style first appeared in the Conver deck, published in 1760. The Conver deck underlies all subsequent TdM decks. They’re the dominant card style in France, and after a version was published in 1969 with a booklet in English more American readers began discovering them too.
You may have noticed that the “pip” cards (1 through 10 of each suit of the Minor Arcana) in the above deck don’t depict full scenes. That’s one of the traits that sets this style apart from others. Like the playing cards from which they came, TdM pip cards feature a geometric arrangement of whatever symbol is used for the suit.
The images in TdM decks as a whole tend to be simpler than other styles because the originals were printed with woodblocks. Modern TdM decks still reflect that. For instance, even cards with scenes (Majors and Court cards) rarely have backgrounds. The sky is simply left blank.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a purity of purpose to a TdM deck that other styles are hard-pressed to match. They’re especially useful for those who rely more on numeric, astrological, and elemental correspondences when interpreting Tarot. Those of us distracted by overly ornamental artwork, or overwhelmed by the symbolism grafted onto the cards by later styles, might very well find these cards a welcome change too. However, if you rely more on lush imagery for interpretation these decks might not work for you.
In 1909 AE Waite commissioned Pamela Colman-Smith to do the art for a Tarot deck later published by the Rider Company. It used fully-realized scenes for the pip cards and quickly became the American standard. Often labeled as Rider-Waite decks, many Tarot enthusiasts honor Colman-Smith’s contribution by naming her too.
The original RWS deck is available in several sizes and coloring styles: the Commemorative, the Original, the Radiant, etc. Beyond that, this is such a popular deck that the market is flooded with “RWS clones” and “RWS-inspired” decks. Clones redraw and/or recolor the original art but otherwise exactly copy it (thank you copyright interruptions!), while inspired decks use much of the same symbology but put their own spin on the actual art.
RWS decks are by far the dominant style in the US. When most of us think “Tarot deck” it’s an RWS deck we picture. Because of that, learning to read Tarot with one is fairly standard. Many Tarot teachers and Tarot books recommend starting with one, too. I have to disagree. In my opinion RWS decks usually (but not always) add more complications to the process of learning Tarot than necessary. That can be a stumbling block for those new to it.
There are more accessible approaches. I suggest beginners start with one of these other decks, get comfortable with Tarot basics, and then tackle one of the many gorgeous RWS decks available. In my experience, learning Tarot is less frustrating and overwhelming when we can ease into it a bit.
Lady Frieda Harris painted the original Thoth deck according to directions from Aleister Crowley, who called them The Book of Thoth and wrote a companion book for them. Some of the cards were painted as many as eight times over the course of five years! A limited edition was published in 1944 and the deck was published for a wider audience in 1969.
Since then artists have created their own intensely layered artworks based on the Thoth framework, leading to the birth of this style family. This is the third most common style, behind the RWS and the TdM.
Decks in this style are a radical departure from TdM and RWS decks. The original Thoth deck incorporated elements from many different philosophies and magickal traditions, ranging from Kabbalah and I Ching to Western magick and Egyptian mysticism. It also debuted a new way to number and name the cards, changed established associations and correspondences, completely overhauled the Court cards, etc. Decks based on the Thoth deck use the same unified-magpie approach but come at it from areas Crowley didn’t, giving a wide variety of expressions to the core ideas.
Using a Thoth deck well requires familiarity with Crowley’s work and a lot of study. In the hands of a skilled reader, though, they can be extraordinary. These are absolutely not beginner cards.
This style family includes all of the new, different, and unique decks on the market that can’t be easily lumped in with the other style families.
A definite product of its time, The New Tarot was channeled by Ouija board and published in 1969. It was the first modern deck to break from the more established style families. The Mountain Dream Tarot by Bea Nettles came out in 1975 and was the first deck based on photographs. The following year we got the first deck based on a non-Western culture (The Xultun Tarot), and in 1981 the first round deck (The Motherpeace Tarot) came out. The Motherpeace Tarot was also the first feminist-based deck to find widespread distribution. As artists and readers experiment and push the limits of what Tarot can be, more and more decks join this style family.
New Approaches decks can vary from the other style families by taking singular artistic approaches, using nonstandard symbol sets, including a few additional cards, going with different names and/or orders for the cards, etc. Most use a combination of the above.
This category includes all the other cards used for divination and/or self-exploration that aren’t Tarot. That doesn’t mean they can’t complement Tarot – Lenormand cards are gaining a following among Tarot readers, for instance – but they are completely different systems.
In addition to the aforementioned Lenormand cards, this category includes Minchiate cards, angel oracle decks, animal wisdom cards, affirmation decks, and playing cards used for divination, among others.
Tarot decks contain 78 cards spread across 5 suits – one for the Major Arcana and four in the Minor Arcana. The four Minor Arcana suits include four Court cards each. Names and orders may change, meanings may be tweaked, but all of these elements are present in a Tarot deck.
Oracle cards are way more free form. They can have any number of cards, follow any rules they like, and create their own structure as they go. The art can range from incredibly simple to ornate, and many include quotations.
Some are simpler than Tarot, but others (like the 97-card Minchiate cards) are more complex. While most are packaged with the only book you’ll need to understand them, information on others can be scant. Make sure you have the info you need to get started before investing in one of these.
*There are other types of Tarot decks, specifically historical ones, that I didn’t cover here because they’re not widely referred to or used. If you’d like to learn more about these other styles check out Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Tarot: A Comprehensive Guide.