One of my favorite RWS decks of all time is the Universal Waite Tarot (a vintage Belgium printing, of course!). I fell in love with it as a teenager for its clean linework and dynamic colors, and it remains a “go to” deck in my collection. Even though the Robin Wood is my ride-or-die deck, I reached for the Universal Waite first for years when I gave readings for others. (Well, at least others who weren’t in my coven.)
I still maintain that that the Universal Waite is the best version of the Rider Waite Smith deck on the mass market today. To me, Mary Hanson-Roberts’ recoloring is the sharpest and most detailed there is while maintaining Pamela Colman Smith’s original linework. You can spend hours looking at all the detail in these cards. But I got into the practice of letting my clients take pictures of their readings. One thing led to another, and the next thing you know I’ve got photo after photo of various card readings populating my Instagram. I started to notice that the Universal Waite tends to look washed out when photographed. At first, I attributed that to questionable photography and an abundance of filters. But then I started noticing that one deck’s cards photographed very, very well no matter what.
After following a few hashtags, I eventually determined that these cards all came from Lo Scarabeo’s 2016 Pamela Colman Smith RWS Tarot deck. From what I could tell in photographs, the coloring was really something to take notice of. The RWS deck is generally a very yellow deck, but this particular rendering leaned heavily on the blues and had been computer shaded to give a decidedly “moody” effect. In fact, I called this deck the “moody blues” deck for ages. I did eventually come across one of these decks in a shop and seriously contemplated buying it, but passed at that time rationalizing that I already had a perfectly useful RWS that I was more than happy with for all other purposes. “I can always get this one later,” I rationalized.
I rationalized wrong.
Unfortunately for me, Lo Scarabeo still publishes a Pamela Colman Smith RWS Tarot deck…but the cards it contains are not the moody, atmospherically colored ones. They are not the ones that called to me throughout Instagram and Pinterest.
I don’t know the official story behind the change, but what I’ve pieced together is that when Lo Scarabeo first began publishing the PCS RWS with the blue backs, most people were quite pleased with the production as it was a nice, clean printing of the Pam A deck. Unfortunately, US Games believes they hold the current copyright to the Pam A deck, at least in Anglophone countries. (Technically they don’t…but that’s a story for another day.) There was probably some legal action threatened, so Lo Scarabeo pulled a quick switch and packaged a Pam B deck they had in the works in this box.
That Pam B deck was this pretty atmospherically colored deck. Now, many people do genuinely love this coloring…but Lo Scarabeo handled the quick switch badly. There was no announcement of the change or obviously noticeable alteration to the packaging, so people were ordering what they thought was a traditional Pam A with blue backs and getting this weirdly colored Pam B with red, white, and green backs. There were a lot of angrily worded letters. Then Lo Scarabeo got a lot of negative feedback when this second version hit the American and UK markets, because it was being promoted as an homage to Pamela Colman Smith’s original artwork…and it really wasn’t what with the digitized coloring and the replacement of Smith’s calligraphy at the bottom of the majors, aces, and courts with typeface.
Therefore, when the “atmospheric” stock ran out, Lo Scarabeo replaced it with a Pam B that had more standard coloration and restored Colman Smith’s calligraphy. They also changed the back up a little, blowing up the first run’s 12 rows of lilies and roses with a larger 8 rows.
Unfortunately, Lo Scarabeo hadn’t quite learned its lesson from the first change and maintained the similar packaging. By that time, loads of people were buying the PCS RWS specifically for its moody coloring and were quite upset by receiving the third deck. It took a few months for word to spread throughout the tarot community that these new cards weren’t a subpar counterfeit.
In the end, I could not find a copy of the atmospheric PCS RWS (version 2) that I had fallen in love with, and I have to admit I was a little crushed. But then I heard that Lo Scarabeo was bringing that art back this year in a new, borderless deck, the Radiant Wise Spirit Tarot.
I’m not going to lie…I had a pretty severe fear of missing out on this deck, stupid name and all. (Seriously, Radiant Wise Spirit? Are those all words commonly linked with “tarot” in Google searches or something? About the only redeeming thing I can think of in this name is that it makes this deck the RWS RWS. It’s the RWS2!) So I made sure to get a copy as soon as possible rather than waiting around for the reviews to trickle in.
I have to say, the early reviews are pretty positive from what I’ve seen. Everyone seems to love the continuation of the deeper, moodier coloring and the attention to more realistic shading. There’s definitely a depth to these cards that (with the exception of the more pastel Universal Waite and the Radiant Rider-Waite) isn’t generally seen in Rider Waite Smith decks. There’s also a lot of love for the back with its ten rows of lilies and roses, which seems to strike the right balance between being scaled too large or too small. And people can’t stop raving about the deck being borderless. With the exception of the borderless edition of the Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot, it’s really difficult to find a borderless Rider Waite Smith deck that is widely available. In fact, the only point of criticism that I’ve seen is that some people don’t care for the font that Lo Scarabeo chose to title the cards. Some people are also annoyed by their decision to digitally erase the numbers from the cards and include them only in the title bar. Others, however, appreciate the change and think it makes it easier to “sink into the scene of the card.” People even have great things to say about the cardstock (sturdy with a nice gloss) and the box (a really solid 2 piece model). Overall, this seems like it will be a much-loved deck and probably sell fairly well.
And yet…I regret purchasing it.
This deck will do exactly what I bought it to do: photograph beautifully when I give readings for others. Seriously, all you have to do is throw down a nicely textured black cloth, scatter a few crystals about, maybe smack down a sprig of rosemary or a votive candle and BOOM: #witchesofinstagram fodder. In today’s world, aesthetics drive business, and this deck makes aesthetics stupid easy.
But as a low key tarot nerd, I really hate this deck.
To make this deck borderless, remove Colman Smith’s original calligraphy, and still keep it at a standard tarot deck size, Lo Scarabeo had to crop in the original artwork from the PCS RWS. And as anyone with a basic photo editing program can tell you, details get blurry when you crop something in. There are many, many cards where original detail gets lost to the crop. There are several that are cropped so much that Pamela Colman Smith’s signature sigil is entirely eradicated. Worse, any card that has areas uninterrupted by linework have very obvious pixelation of the coloring. Take, for example the sky and ground on this 10 of cups. As you can see, the line work is pretty crisp, but the gradation in the coloring now looks quite amateurish. The coloring also contains weird “blobs” that look like scanning errors or attempts to make the cards look older. At this larger scale, they just look weird. It’s nothing that would photograph unless you’re doing an extreme close up like what I’ve done above, but in person it looks a bit sloppy.
The line work also does this deck no favors. As I’ve mentioned, this deck is a recoloration of the Pam B deck. Unfortunately, that’s not something I realized until I had the cards in my hands. And I really dislike Pam B.
After the Roses and Lilies deck, Pam A is considered the oldest of the Rider Waite decks published between 1910 and about 1940, followed by Pam D and then by Pam B or Pam C. Pam B/C was created when the lithographic plates for the deck needed to be re-cut, either because they became too worn or because Rider wanted to incorporate dot printing technology. (You can learn a bit about the comparative history of the various Pams here.) Unfortunately, those in charge of tracing Coleman Smith’s line art were not nearly as skilled as those who made the original plates. A lot of detail gets obliterated or changed between Pam B/C and the earlier editions, Pam A (Pam D is a poor quality photographic printing of the Pam A). The line work is a bit heavier in B/C, and a lot of proportions get squished, particularly in faces. When this edition is further cropped in and blown up, the poor line work gets even more heavy and looks even more sloppy. Facial expressions, in particular, change quite a bit…and that really impacts how I interpret the cards.
I actively avoid RWS decks that rework the B/C Rider Waite, and would likely not have purchased this deck had I noticed the B/C line art earlier. Between it and the more obvious color pixelation, I don’t think the cards look nearly as good in real life as they do in photographs. I had some really high hopes for this deck, but it is likely one I will only use for public readings. I just hope I don’t get too annoyed by the cards in a reading environment!