How cool is this? My friend Brant sent me this image of an advertisement for the first edition of the Hoi Polloi tarot. I have no idea who Ideal House is. I imagine they were some sort of marketing firm, seeing as they were on Madison Avenue in the mid-century. But aside from the fact that they were in the Lefcourt Colonial Building, I can’t find out any other information about them or how they were connected with Reiss and his tarot.
In 1972, The Hoi Polloi, Inc. company began publishing a tarot deck that was unlike any other up to that point. It wasn’t a deck that emulated an older art style or tried to look like it was out of the 1500s. It embraced the study in contradiction that defined the ’70s aesthetic: a balance of drab earth tones and campy colors, nature-loving hippiedom and high-tech futurism, austerity and decadence. Its contemporary harvest golds and neon pinks colored Pamela Coleman Smith’s ‘medieval’ universe, and it threw Victorian Gothic lettering into moddish title lozenges. And then, unlike any tarot producer up to that point, Hoi Polloi marketed their mishmash deck as a game instead of a divination tool and put it in department stores all over the country alongside Old Maid and Uno cards. Their deck was poised to become the classic tarot deck in the American cultural subconscious.
But instead, Hoi Polloi’s deck, The Tarot, sold well through the mid 1980s in three different packaging variations, and then it entirely disappeared. Today, little is known about why the deck was created, who created it, or why it quietly exited the marketplace. Other popular decks of the early 1970s, like U.S. Games’s The Rider Tarot and Frankie Albano’s The Albano-Waite Tarot, have remained staple decks in Tarot culture. Others, like University Books deck and the bootlegs of it printed by Merrimack Publishing and B. Shackman faded from production as the companies were bought or folded, but they still remained a discussed and valued part of tarot history. But the Hoi Polloi deck went the way of avocado colored kitchen appliances and pink toilets: a collective fad barely to be remembered and never to be repeated.
I think that the rise and fall of the Hoi Polloi deck has a lot to do with one man in particular: Bob Reiss. A 1956 Harvard MBA graduate and Brooklyn native, Reiss had remained in New York and had gone on to found a toy and game company, Reiss Games. Reiss, however, was not in the position of a larger game company like Parker Brother or Hasbro that was looking to build a catalog of easy-to-play ‘classic’ games that could be produced for decades. Reiss was an entrepreneur, and he was looking to capitalize on what was popular at the moment before moving on to the next big thing. Looking at some of the games in Reiss’s catalogue, the company did maintain a list perennial staples like basic playing cards, checkers and chess sets, and backgammon, but their focus was a rotation of titles that tapped into the day’s zeitgeist for a year or two, then were retired in favor of something new. As the nation was becoming frustrated with the Vietnam War and Watergate, Reiss published games like The Next President and Lie, Steal, and Cheat: The Game of Political Power. As excitement was building toward the bicentennial, for example, Reiss released a game called 1776: The Birth of a Nation. When second wave feminism was at its peak, they published He-She-Him-Her, a game where women seek to escape the kitchen and men do all they can to keep them there.
During his time as a game producer, Bob Reiss went on to have a couple excellent examples of product development and execution that became classic case studies for Harvard Business School. What the focus of these studies are is how Reiss was able to successfully diversify risk when it came to creating and selling his game products.
I think that part of his risk diversification strategy in the early 1970s was creating multiple small companies, and I believe that Hoi Polloi, Inc. was one of these.
If you look up what some of Hoi Polloi, Inc.’s products were, you’ll find a list of fairly disposable games, the type you might pick up in Dollar Stores. Most of their titles were games you could play with a pad of paper, like tic-tac-toe, Chinese checkers, or sort of Mad Libs type games. A lot of these ended up packaged together in an omnibus title 5 Pad & Pencil Games People Love to Play. Hoi Polloi did have a few card decks and other games in its catalogue, but anything more involved than these were always released in conjunction with Reiss Associates as the marketer.
This could be just a familiar partnership, but I think that Hoi Polloi was largely just a bit of a shell company for Bob Reiss. I think it was a division that could produce steady income from cheap products without diluting the brand of the parent company. It was also a handy outlet to insulate the main company from potential failures of more risky ventures, such as that misogynistic He-She-Him-Her game previously mentioned, which was a partnership between Hoi Polloi and Reiss.
What I think is perhaps the most telling bit of evidence that Hoi Polloi was essentially just a shell of Reiss is the fact that they were both headquartered in the same building in New York City. The company address of Hoi Polloi, Inc. was never listed on the packaging of any of their Tarot decks, but on other Hoi Polloi products it was given as 1150 Broadway, New York, NY 10001. (Not coincidentally, this is also the address given for Romany Merchandise Corp. on the back of the 1980s Tarot package.) Reiss’s address was listed at 230 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10001. Drop these listings into Google Maps, and it is very obvious that the companies were in each other’s pockets.
Now, with at least a couple companies based on riding the waves of public interest, Reiss couldn’t leave the rising swell of magic and the occult unexplored. The occult was a major player of American pop culture in the late ’60s through early ’80s. The film Rosemary’s Baby had been released in 1968, and The Exorcist was later released in 1973. Scores of other less enduring works were published in literature, television, and film during this era. The time was definitely right for a little game company to make some money off of magic. After all, some of Reiss’s larger competitors like Parker Brothers — who acquired the rights to Ouija in 1966 — were profitably riding this particular gravy train.
Again diversifying his risk, Reiss used his primary company to release a quality line of stage magic tricks more palatable to the general public. These were sold nationwide in the then most dominant department stores: Sears and J.C. Penny. To tap into the riskier occult vein, Reiss relied on Hoi Polloi to push two cheaper products in more common stores: an astrology kit and a tarot deck.
Now, Reiss was a pretty savvy fellow. In order to further minimize risk to Hoi Polloi and Reiss with these releases, he needed to downgrade the demonic aspect many people in the 1970s assumed these things to have. He also had to find ways to make these products fit his company. After all, neither Reiss Associates nor Hoi Polloi was an esoterica publishing house: they were board game companies. All of Reiss’s connections and distributors were pushing entertainment, not enlightenment.
Reiss needed to gamify the Hoi Polloi Tarot.
So someone — maybe even Reiss himself — picked up a Rider Waite deck (likely a University Books deck, given its New York City ubiquity at the time), grabbed an in-house graphic artist (likely Jason Peterson, the designer credited on a couple versions of the box), and set the kid to trace out the figures on the cards and simplify their designs. Then they had the designer make the cards look a lot like Hoi Polloi’s other board games with lots of bright colors and high contrast between lots of black and white elements. With the cards looking less like something one would find in a gypsy caravan and more like a cool new game, Hoi Polloi developed an instruction booklet that not only included divinatory meanings and a few spreads, but all sorts of suggestions on the tons of fun games that could play with the cards and how they could even be used for poker and bridge if you only removed the major arcana and the pages. For maybe two weeks of work and a minimal cash outlay, Hoi Polloi and Reiss Games had a solid product they could move to market.
They did so quickly in 1972, with packaging that resembled a wooden box. Likely judging that to be too esoteric and alienating, they changed the packaging to resemble a more traditional board game in 1973. This long, skinny purple box had bright, eye-catching contrasting colors, and it sold very well. It was a bit ridiculous to package cards like this, though, and it was very easy to damage the cards in the box, so by the early 1980s, the packaging was changed to resemble that used for Uno or Skip-Bo cards.
But the Hoi Polloi Tarot did not survive for too many years after its final packaging design. By the middle of the 1980s, the decks disappeared from the market.
Again, I think Bob Reiss’s business acumen resulted in the death of this deck.
The game industry began to change fairly profoundly in the late 1970s, thanks to the popularity of Star Wars and the rise of home video consoles like the Atari Video Computer system, both of which were released in 1977. Between the public’s interest in buying franchise-branded items and the growing fascination with video games, it became more difficult to move more traditional games, and it would require a much larger financial outlay to produce branded items or to develop expensive video games. Around this time, Bob Reiss sold Reiss Games and Reiss Associates to the National Paragon Corporation and exited his companies. Packaging on items was then changed to reflect that Reiss Associates was now a subsidiary of National Paragon Corporation. In 1981, the company name was officially changed to Paragon-Reiss.
After divesting himself of Reiss Associates, Bob Reiss went on to found a new game company, R&R, and he did have one last major game hurrah through that company. In 1984, Bob Reiss had noted how crazy Americans had become for Trivial Pursuit, which had been released in 1981. He approached TV Guide with the idea of creating a similar trivia game for them, and they immediately contracted him. The timing was perfect as the Trivial Pursuit craze peaked in 1984, and Reiss had his new game out just in time for the 1984 holiday season. With a development cost of just $50,000, Reiss netted $7.5 million in profit, or nearly $20 million in 2019 dollars. Noting both the declining nature of the board game industry and the truism that lighting rarely strikes twice, Reiss sold R&R, took his money, and went on to live comfortably. He did well with all the other businesses he later founded, including a watch company, and today enjoys a semi-retired life in Florida.
Alas, without Bob Reiss’s entrepreneurship to float them along, Hoi Polloi’s days were numbered. The National Paragon Corporation ultimately proved to have little understanding of the game industry. Paragon-Reiss eventually folded and the National Paragon Corporation transformed itself into a company that made crafting kits for hobby stores. When that industry slowed down, they rebranded themselves as the National Media Corporation and spent much of the 1990s producing infomercials. They’d gone bankrupt by the late 1990s, but they managed to reinvent themselves again thanks to a $30 million cash infusion from an investor, Stephen Lehman. Lehman moved the company out to Los Angeles with the idea of tying their existing infomercial infrastructure to the developing dot com industry, and by 1999, National Media Corporation was directly behind the new site Everything4Less.com. The site was shortly lived, and National Media Corporation went permanently defunct with the dot com crash of the early aughts.
After Paragon-Reiss was created in 1981, they continued sell the Hoi Polloi briefly, but shortly thereafter publication returned to Hoi Polloi, or at least the company they rebranded as in 1973: the Romany Merchandise Corp., still at 1150 Broadway. Romany made a go of continuing to produce and market the products they had developed throughout its existence alongside Reiss. Unfortunately, they produced cheap products that could now be made even more cheaply by others thanks to Nixon’s opening of China. Their products also looked increasingly dated as the more futuristic aesthetic of the 1980s progressed. That combined with the growing decline in public interest for amusements that weren’t related to a franchise or to video games meant that the company could not move enough product to remain profitable. By the late 1980s, Romany were effectively dissolved and ceased production of all items, though their articles of incorporation remain active to this day. Existing stock of their items were farmed out to various liquidation publishers, and the Hoi Polloi ended its run being sold boxless, with a tiny booklet stating it was now distributed by Bell Publishing, itself a division of Crown Publishers.
With the rise of Internet auction sites like eBay, the Hoi Polloi Tarot has remained a desirable and sought after deck clear through today, and it can command prices as high as $150 for particularly good decks, though around $100 is more common for decks with boxes and $60 for decks without them. No one has ever attempted to have the Hoi Polloi reissued, though, likely out of the complexity of figuring out just who holds the publication rights to the deck now and the potential threat of US Games suing for copyright infringement. (One would assume that the illustrator, Jason Peterson holds the rights…but I’ve not been able to confirm that.) US Games will lose a lot of its ability to sue in 2021, however, so maybe a Hoi Polloi revival will be on the horizon soon.
Y’all! I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and started a YouTube channel. I do anticipate that I will vastly under utilize this medium. After all, I don’t particularly want my ugly mug out there for all and sundry to gawp at. But there are a few things that are just easier to communicate via film than by written prose. I’d thought about featuring occasional videos here in a post, but it is so much easier to have YouTube host all that data…so YouTube it is.
I don’t have any plans or direction for the channel. Heck, I barely know how to shoot video. But I did take the opportunity of a “school is cancelled because of the corona virus” day coupled with some delightful mail to figure out some basic YouTube stuff. And this is the result:
UPDATE MAY 2020: In April 2020, Conrad Steyn removed the version of the C.S. Tarot that I reviewed here and replaced it with a second edition in May. The new editions can be found at his Tarot Lounge shop on Make Playing Cards. At the end of this review, I also discuss how you may wish to create a box for this deck. In order to keep costs down for consumers, most of the options for the second edition of the C.S. Tarot do come without a box. Only the tarot size linen deck with an amber back comes with a box. However, Conrad endorses your ability to add a custom tin to your order and has provided downloadable art for the covers on his website. Conrad does not receive any additional money for you creating a tin for your deck.
UPDATE AUGUST 2020: In this review, I am very enthusiastic about the linen cardstock option for this deck. Unfortunately, the printer–Make Playing Cards–has changed the quality of their M31 Linen cardstock. It is now much thinner (about 7 cards thinner per deck than the previous cardstock), way more flexible, and has a more satin laminated finish. It also doesn’t shuffle nearly as nice as the previous card stock. I cannot recommend this cardstock any longer. In addition, Conrad no longer prints decks on the S33 Superior Smooth cardstock I mentioned here, due to the price increase for this cardstock. Current editions are avaliable in the S30 Standard Smooth cardstock, which is quite nice, the new M31 Linen which is not good, and a plastic card.
If you had told me last December that my biggest magical focus of 2019 would have been in studying tarot, I would have probably been hospitalized due to the hysterical laughter. I’ve been reading tarot cards for nearly a quarter of a century now. Tarot had long ceased to be a subject of fascination for me and had simply become another skill in my magical wheelhouse. In fact, I thought I’d spend 2019 moving deeper into my Gardnerian practices with an eye toward preparing for the third degree.
But 2019 was an odd duck, and tarot became my focus. Coincidentally, 2019 also saw a renewed global interest in one of my favorite decks, the classic Rider Waite Smith, as illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite. Lo Scarabeo has published two RWS decks this year: the Radiant Wise Spirit and Tarot: Black and Gold Edition. English speakers started to find ways to get English-language copies of AGM-Urania’s Tarot of A.E. Waite (link is to German edition), from Polish, Lithuanian, and German sellers. (The deck was initially published in 2016, but the English version was quickly barred from sale in the U.S. and U.K. by U.S. Games.) Smaller companies like Siren Imports and M and A Limited jumped onto the scene with their own re-drawn and re-colored versions (spoiler: Siren’s two editions are remarkably good, M and A’s is trash). And with the rise in quality of several print-on-demand card manufacturers (notably Make Playing Cards, Game Crafter, and DriveThru Cards), several tarot enthusiasts and artists have attempted to make their own ideal RWS deck.
Conrad Steyn’s The C.S. Tarot falls into this latter category, and it stands as wonderful testament to the quality attainable within this route of deck production.
Conrad Steyn is based out of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he has been a counselor for the past 10 years and is currently in the process of completing a doctoral degree in counseling psychology. He is also, obviously, a tarot enthusiast and professional reader. I believe he has said that he has over 250 decks, and several of them are the various copies of the Rider Waite Smith deck. He, like so many RWS aficionados, has become deeply fond of Pamela Colman Smith’s artwork, faux-Renaissance clothing styles and all.
It is a sad fact that there just aren’t many RWS decks out in the market place these days that do Colman Smith’s artwork justice. My favorite are U.S. Games’s The Universal Waite and the Smith-Waite Centennial Deck, but even these have their draw backs. Mary Hanson Roberts did a phenomenal job recoloring Colman Smith’s drawings in The Universal Waite, and she did preserve a lot of Colman Smith’s work, but she entirely re-drew faces and had to eliminate Colman Smith’s line work, so it is impossible to actually regard that deck as Colman Smith’s artwork. Contemporary printings of The Universal Waite are also subpar. Production was moved to China, and the lamination on the new printings has a very waxy feel and will leave a residue on your hands, which I personally find distasteful. (Definitely find a vintage Belgium printing in the beige box if you want this deck.) The Centennial, on the other hand, is a remarkably faithful printing. It is a high resolution scan of the cleanest cards from Stuart Kaplan’s Pam A decks–which is about as faithful to Colman Smith as it gets. U.S. Games digitally cleaned the cards up as best they could, but then they overlaid all the cards with a vintage filter, presumably to better market it as a hundred-year-old, “original” copy (and pick up the side benefit of camouflaging any dirt or damage that was missed in editing). Unfortunately, the filter sucks the light and life out of the cards and makes it a little harder to see the details of the deck clearly, which is a shame. The cardstock is also not much to get excited over either. The deck is a bit on the thick side, which can throw off clients used to a 52-card poker deck, but at least its lamination avoids the waxy issues of The Universal Waite.
Out of a frustration of what was available in the market and as a way to pay homage to Colman Smith, Steyn decided to create his own deck. He wanted to feature Colman Smith’s artwork as unaltered as possible and to honor the fact that it is a deck that is over 100 years old, but he also wanted to marry it with twenty-first century aesthetic and seriously good card stock.
For the materials, Steyn drew inspiration from Uusi, a design company founded by artists Peter Dunham and Linnea Gits in 2010. While Uusi does have some three-dimensional products, they are very much a print company and seek to use the highest quality materials they can. In 2016, they released a tarot deck, Pagan Otherworlds, whose beauty and quality made a huge splash among taroists. In particular, many people fell in love with its black core cardstock. It shuffled beautifully and felt sturdy in the hand thanks to its 340 gsm weight, yet retained pliability thanks to its embossed linen finish. This brought Steyn to Make Playing Cards, which (then) offered a superb 310 gsm black core linen card stock. As a bonus, Make Playing Cards is also open to deck creators and purchasers across the globe, not just Europe and the United States. (This is especially key for Steyn, since as a South African, he is unable to use other popular independent outlets like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to promote and market his deck.)
For the artwork, Steyn turned to an early pre-copyright early 1970s printing of the Rider Waite tarot. At that time, AGM in Switzerland was printing the same decks and separately packaging them for the blue box Rider & Co. (U.K.), and the yellow box decks for both Samuel Weiser (U.K. and U.S.) and U.S. Games (U.S.). These are remarkably lovely decks (despite the hideous plaid backs) because they maintain the sharp line work of traditional printing methods, but use more modern color printing than was available from 1910-1940. Its color can be laid down quite evenly without using layers of lithographic lines (as in Pam A) or blotchy dots (as in Pam B). And unlike subsequent printings of the modern deck, these early 1970s printings are very close to the colors and hues used in the Pam A decks (albeit a touch brighter and with less nuanced shading).
(Note: Steyn found his pre-copyright deck secondhand in a local shop, and it did not come with its original packaging, so he does not know whether it is Rider & Co., U.S. Games, or Samuel Weiser. Given that he is South African, my best guess would be a 1973 Rider blue box, for Rider tended to distribute more over the former British empire while the other companies largely focused on America and Canada. It doesn’t really matter, though, as they’re all the same AGM cards.)
Once the materials were sorted, Steyn opted to bring more modern aesthetics into the RWS deck not through modifying the artwork, but through changing backgrounds. In fact, the only changes he made to the original artwork were to balance color saturation and contrast to either stand better against the backgrounds or to optimize them for printing.
And the backgrounds! Steyn has no formal training in computer graphics or design, and yet he was able to develop backgrounds that give each card a moody atmosphere that strongly reminds me of the coveted Lo Scarabeo “Dirty Pam” (which eventually became the Radiant Wise Spirit), but maintains the clarity of good Pam A linework and avoids the use of distracting filters. In fact, every single one of the background effects is unique. Not a single thing (except the border) has been unilaterally applied to all the cards. Steyn definitely deserves an A for effort.
In my book, he also gets an A for execution. The background of all these cards has a sort of “crackle” effect, which initially reminded me of the crazing that oil painting and pottery acquire through the years. But the story behind this aesthetic choice lies in the backing Steyn designed for these cards. Steyn took a piece of amber that he had, and took a macro photograph of it, capturing its inclusions. He then manipulated the image to enhance the cracks and turned it into a mosaic with both horizontal and vertical symmetry. (In fact, the backs would be fully reversible if he had not included Pamela Colman Smith’s signatory sigil…but that’s a small matter. I find that my hands largely block the card center as I pull cards, so I’ve not had a problem “avoiding reversals.”)
The cracked amber backing sets up a metaphor that carries Steyn’s attitude toward the tarot and to his design process for this deck. Amber, as we all know, is not a rock that stretches to the earliest glimmers of terrestrial history. It is, instead, petrified tree sap, and frequently contains within it plant and animal matter from time long forgotten. To retrieve the genetic knowledge hidden within amber, we have to crack the stone in order to access it. The tarot, too, allows us to access forgotten, subconscious knowledge, if only we have the courage to crack through its symbols and search for it.
Not all of the backgrounds are wildly different or have extreme coloration, which is one of the things that I think helps keep this deck closer to honoring Colman Smith than other modern recolorations. In fact, the first time I saw a walk through of the deck, I thought that the “dark” cards–the Devil, the Tower, and the 9 and 10 of swords–were unmodified. A closer look, however, shows that Steyn moved his crackle effect to the Devil’s wings and the Tower’s clouds, which I think was a nicely solid move to keep the deck unified while also maintaining the pitch black these cards require. The 9 and 10 of swords, as minor arcana, can take a little lightening. In these, the black backgrounds are subtly crackled.
The crackling can sometimes be tight and a little busy–such as on the World card (you can see a corner below)–so I was worried about how it would impact the more visually cluttered of Colman Smith’s cards: the 5, 10, and King of pentacles. I actually had to search for the crackle in the 5, that’s how subtle the darkening of the snow was, so the effect poses no issues there. I also think the effect improves the composition of the 10. In that card, I’ve always found that my eye immediately latches onto the tower in the one “open” space on the card. It takes me physical effort to look down into the scene and that crazy robe the old man is wearing. But with the crackle in the sky, my eye now goes directly to the old man’s head, travels to the dogs, and then can take in the whole scene. With the King…well, I can actually stand to look at the card now that the sky is a subtle butter yellow rather than a high contrast canary against the black. That combo has always read as “danger” to me, which counters this King’s otherwise chill vibes.
While Steyn was inspired by Uusi’s cardstock for Pagan Otherworlds and wanted to provide a linen finish, he was also savvy enough to understand that not every taroist likes a linen cardstock. Linen stock allows little pockets of air to remain between the cards, which gives them a greater slip against each other. All those fancy card tricks that magicians can do? All those dramatic fannings that Vegas card dealers whip out? Those are made possible because of linen card stock. It handles and shuffles beautifully. On the downside, it can make the cards harder to hold on to, particularly if you have smaller hands or less dexterity.
A huge benefit of setting up his distribution as a print-on-demand service meant that Steyn wasn’t married to a single card stock. In the end, he enabled two options that could be ordered through his Tarot Lounge shop on Make Playing Cards: Option 1 is the deck on smooth stock, Option 2 is the deck on linen stock. Both the smooth stock (which MPC calls S33 Superior Smooth) and the linen stock (which MPC calls M31 Linen) have a weight of 310 GSM, and both are made with a black core between the white paper layers. Having this core means that it is impossible for printing on one side to show through to the other. Indeed, it’s impossible for visible light to penetrate through that core. A similar option would be a blue core. Both are used in casino decks to help minimize cheating, but black core is preferred because it is more opaque and they gives the final card a whiter appearance. This allows any colors printed on black core cardstock to read as more true to tone. Blue core gives the white a more blue or slate grey tone, and that can skew ink colors and make artwork appear darker. It is also slightly more transparent, which can impact how “crisp” the art will look to the eye, since some light will diffract through the colored inks into the paper. You’d actually want that transparency for photographic printing, as it will make the photograph look more realistic. But for drawn art, black core is definitely the way to go.
When Steyn first set things up with MPC, he heavily endorsed choosing the M31 cardstock, which he vastly preferred on his prototype decks. It was remarkably similar to that of Pagan Otherworlds in that the linen finishing was buttery smooth in texture and felt rigid while still retaining enough pliability to withstand the bending of riffle shuffling. Just prior to launching the decks for public access, however, MPC was forced to find a new paper mill for its M31 stock as the previous German supplier had gone out of business. The M31 that MPC now provides is, on paper (hah!), similar to that of the previous supplier. In person, however, the texture is a little rougher and the paper is more flexible.
Interestingly, increased flexibility of a cardstock makes that cardstock feel thinner in your hand than it actually is. It’s a really cool feedback loop in your brain. You’ve got years of experience telling you that thicker things are more rigid than thinner things, so you begin to equate the two and you can’t readily overcome that association. It’s a bit like an optical illusion…just tactile.
I did get a copy of both finishes, as you can see below, and I can attest that they both have similar level of lamination on their finish and that the two deck are the exact same thickness. I was a bit surprised when I first got the linen deck that it felt so much thinner to me than other decks. But it is only 6 cards shorter than Pagan Otherworlds, which uses 340 gsm stock. It is about 12 cards shorter than my new copy of the Centennial (when I remove the extra cards), but it is the exact same thickness as my vintage Universal Waite (again, when I remove the extra cards).
That Universal has been a standard deck of mine for about 20 years, so when I measured the decks, I was surprised that I was perceiving the M31 as so flimsy. So I gave it a good solid try before I dismissed the cardstock and judged it to be cheap. And boy, was I surprised. I loved the linen cardstock once I started working with this deck. It is remarkably slick, even for a linen deck. The cards glide over each other better than my Pagan Otherworlds deck, even though the M31 stock is a hair rougher in texture. (And really, I had to give those two decks a solid feel and do blind comparisons to feel any difference.) They riffle shuffle like a damn dream, too. It feels like a casino deck.
The casino feel might not be every reader’s personal preference…but it goes a long way when reading for others. I’ve got a few regular clients who are more card savvy than your typical person paying for a reading, but the grand majority of the people I read for don’t have much experience handling cards that aren’t a standard poker deck. When they go to shuffle the massive cards of my Next World Tarot for example, or my thicc Bonefire deck, they drop the cards all over the place. With the linen C.S. Tarot, they get good shuffles without even trying. It’s very impressive, and one of the things that makes me appreciate this deck as a professional one. As a side bonus, it’s also easier to photograph the linen deck as the finish minimizes light glaring off the lamination.
That being said, the S33 Superior Smooth cardstock is also lovely and easy to handle. In fact, it feels exactly like the lovely cardstock used in my vintage Universal Waite, which is a bit spooky. The S33 is now the cardstock that Conrad Steyn is personally endorsing…but I’ve got to say, I really enjoy the M31 Linen, even if it is different from his original vision.
If you decide to get a copy of The C.S. Tarot Deck, you may also want to set aside some money in your budget for some craft supplies. The C.S. Tarot isn’t a borderless deck, but it does have a colored border. In fact, Steyn took a scan of a page from a 100-year-old bible dictionary to get a color and texture that would remind one of naturally aged paper without resorting to a filter. I love the colored borders. When I compare Steyn’s deck with a basic RWS, I find that Steyn’s frame of aged beige helps to “pop” the artwork almost as much as going borderless does. The downside of the colored borders is that the white card edges stand out a lot when you’re handling the deck, so you may wish to color the card edges.
For this deck, I don’t think I’d recommend edging it in a dark color. From what I’ve experienced, MPC’s cardstock is a bit “thirsty” and inks tend to wick between the plastic lamination into the paper. I liked the beige borders enough that I decided to match them when it came to edging. I ended up using a Master’s Touch Fine Art Studio alcohol marker in color 142 Pale Cream. It’s very nearly a perfect match. If I look very closely and with some magnification, I can see a microborder from the ink bleed (it is slightly more golden than the actual border)…but that is with extreme inspection. It’s virtually invisible otherwise. (Can you tell in the picture of the Fool and World cards above? The linen card is edged and the smooth card is not.) A couple people who received Steyn’s prototype deck have edged theirs in with a Winsor Newton Promarker in Caramel, however the prototype deck borders are a darker than the current decks. If I had to get a Winsor Newton pen, I’d try the Vanilla or the Pastel Yellow instead (Vanilla seems to be the closer match to the Master’s Touch Pale Cream, at least based on what my computer monitor tells me.)
You’re also going to want to budget supplies for a box because this deck does not currently come with a box. I totally understand why Steyn didn’t create an option to have decks with boxes at this point. With MPC, it does does add a lot of cost to the deck. Cards that might cost $30 without the deck suddenly jump to the $50-$80 range, and those prices give lots of people pause. And if you’re a professional reader buying replacement decks, you probably have little interest in boxes or paying for their additional cost. But non-professional readers really value having packaging in which to store their decks. It probably wouldn’t be the worst thing for Steyn to add boxed options to the store at some point alongside the current unboxed ones. Given that he already provided different options for cardstock, I think it likely that professionally boxed versions of his deck may someday be a reality.
Until then, Steyn has provided a way for customers who desire a box to make one. He has created a .pdf that will allow you to print a pattern for a basic tuck box, and tuck boxes are remarkably easy to make. You just cut out one flat shape, score where you’d make folds, and glue two edges. If you can wield a sharp X-Acto blade or scissors, you can make a tuck box. You can request that file through Steyn’s contact form on his website, and he has also given me permission to post it here:
Steyn’s .pdf is optimized for A4 paper, which is the standard for pretty much everywhere but the U.S. I’m American, and I can attest that it prints out just fine on our letter size. I have found, though, that most print shops here can’t print on a cardstock thick enough to make a solid box. If you print directly onto a basic printer’s cardstock, the box will feel a bit thin. I printed Steyn’s file onto a piece of paper and then glued that paper to thicker kraft cardstock, which gave me a nice box. However, I think I needed to use a different glue (I just used an acid-free gluestick) as the paper peeled away from the cardstock after a few weeks.
By this point, you may be confused as to why you see tin boxes in my photos if boxes aren’t available. That’s because I ended up poking around the MPC website and learned that I could have them custom print tin lids for tarot boxes. So when I next ordered through them, I had a tin for my C.S. Tarot printed. To make the cover image, I basically just cropped out the face cover from Steyn’s file of the tuckbox and played around with extending the black border until I’d created a JPEG that would properly center on the lid without additional editing. Making the tin only added $14.30 to the price of the deck, and I think it turned out remarkably well. The tin does push the total deck cost to about $56 once shipping is factored in, but you pay shipping regardless and I probably would have spent around $15 anyway to make or buy a storage bag for the deck.
The C.S. Tarot is truly a lovely deck, no matter which option you choose or how you choose to customize it, and I’m really glad to have discovered it. It’s well worth adding to a collection if you’re an RWS aficionado, if you’re a professional reader looking for a quality, client-friendly deck, or even if you’re brand new to tarot and looking for a useful but attractive RWS to study as a primary deck.
Ever since I posted my candle making tutorials for 7-day candles and molded beeswax candles, I’ve sporadically received questions from others about the process. Usually it’s people asking for advice on creating their own candles for spellcraft, though some ask about ways to modify commercial candles for their own purposes. Those looking to modify an existing candle sometimes want to know how to add wax of a different color to a white candle without melting the white candle. (That one’s easy…just cool the colored melted wax to a degree or so before it solidifies, then pour it over the white candle or dip the white candle into it.) Usually, though, they want to know how best to get herbs, stones, or glitter to stick to the wax.
Obviously, I’ve not been around since time immemorial, and my approach to candle magic is not necessarily based in the traditions that have developed within practices like Hoodoo and Santería, so I can’t speak for what might be done there, but embedding herbs, stones, or glitter into candles just isn’t something I do much of, at least at this point in my life. If I want to incorporate some herbal correspondences, I’m far more likely to create an anointing oil with those herbs, either by adding some essential oil of the herb to a base oil, or infusing a base oil with some of the dried herbs. I may put a few dried herbs or crystals around the base of candleholders, but that’s about the extent of it. I don’t usually do anything more elaborate than that.
I do enjoy the look of candles that have been rolled in herbs and glitter, particularly jar candles that have had their tops “dressed” by these oils, stones, and herbs. And I have to admit, they look witchy as hell when they’re being used in a spell, such as those above. And I do know how to add these items. Smaller herbs and glitter will stick without much trouble once the candle has been properly dressed with oil. Larger items and stones will require the wax to be melted a little, which can be done easily enough with a heat gun or hair dryer without lighting the wick. Marietta from Witchy Words wrote up a nice tutorial on how to do so for tea light candles, and the process isn’t much different for other candles, even tapers.
But just because I like the look of something and know how to do it doesn’t mean I will. In this particular case, I have a great reason:
When you add things that can burn to a candle, such as herbs and glitter, you’re basically adding dozens or hundreds of tiny wicks to it. Each one can catch fire, and since it’s the wax that’s burning for the most part rather than the “wick”, that fire can spread quite fast and be sustained for a really long time. The flames grow and can dance wildly, spreading to other items if you’re not careful. Even if you are, those large flames do not typically burn efficiently and produce quite a lot of soot.
I don’t fancy accidentally burning my house down, nor do I like the prospect of repainting soot-stained walls and ceilings much better. I also don’t particularly want to constantly monitor a candle as it burns on for hours (or days) on end to prevent wildly burning candles from becoming dangerous. So I largely avoid adding flammables to candles. This is, of course, personal preference. There are even loads of practitioners out there who view this type of candle burning as more magically potent and really heap on the stuff to get a really dramatic burn. I’m just not one of them.
If you want to burn this type of candle more safely, it’s probably best to burn them in a functioning woodburning fireplace. Lacking that, you could perhaps burn them in a shower stall or bathtub. Just clear out all the loofahs and bottles first, lest they fall over and knock into the candle. It’s probably a good idea to put down a heat-proof trivet and burn the candles in a fire-proof tray set on that trivet, which should minimize damaging the tub or shower due to fiberglass melting or tiles cracking with thermal shock. It might also be worth running the bathroom fan to see if soot buildup can be minimized. But at least burning things in the shower might make the soot easier to clean off surfaces than it might otherwise be.
If you have the ability to make your own candles, I think it’s safer to add herbs to your candles through adding essential or infused oil to your wax. You would want to avoid having a lot of visible particulates of the herbs in your oil, for they’ll cause the candle to pop as they’re drawn into the wick. Too many might even prevent the wick from burning. You could even add stones into the wax, too, so that they would be revealed as the candle burns rather than constantly remain on the surface. The more oil you add to the wax, the softer the wax will be, so it is best to pour these candles into a container rather than turning them into tapers or pillars.
If you do choose to cover your candles in crystals and herbs and can do so safely, I would still caution against adding glitter to the mix. I’m not sure when people started covering their candles in glitter, but I would bet that the practice grew thanks to YouTube and Instagram. The glittered candles look wonderful and decidedly magical, which makes for great content. Making them is also a cheap investment. In fact, there’s more than one metaphysical shop out there offering bespoke carved and glittered spell candles for a nicely profitable fee.
Tempting as these are, though, I think it is best to avoid glitter. Unlike herbs, glitter will rarely cause a candle become a torch, but it can burn. Unfortunately, almost all glitter is tiny fragments of a thin metal foil sandwiched between plastic laminations. The metal will not burn (for the most part), but it is in small enough particles to clog the candle wicking and cause the flame to burn erratically or even pop or spit. It is the plastic, though, that is the greater concern, for it can burn. I suppose the plastic could prove more flammable than the wax and make for a very larger flame, but the greater concern is the chemicals released by the burning plastic. I think we can all agree that burning plastic is hardly a good choice, either for one’s health or for the environment’s.
Candle magic doesn’t require a lot of bells and whistles, and its efficacy relies more on the energetic charge you give to the candles rather than all the items to add to them. So why make life more risky by adding them in the first place?
Color and tarot go hand in hand. Part of how a reader might choose to interpret a card in largely depends upon the colors used in the card. As in color magic, reds could help a reader access elements of power, confidence and passion, orange could help them pull on fun and creativity, and so on. Some decks even rely on color to carry meaning. I don’t even know how I would begin reading the Thoth deck, for instance, if it didn’t have any color.
Color to me is one of the defining reasons why I would be drawn to or even choose one deck over another. So imagine my total surprise when I found myself enchanted by a black and white deck.
The Shadow Light Tarot (and its smaller iteration, the Wander Light Tarot) form the first occult bodies of work from creator Eric Tecce, who is currently in the process of illustrating a 120 card astrology-based oracle named Astro Light. In addition, Tecce also has plans to develop additional projects focused on mythology, dreams, crystals, and plants. If he can bring all this to pass, he surely will be a tour de force in 21st-century occultism.
Tecce first began designing the cards that would eventually become the Shadow Light Tarot back in 2016. He completed his deck in 2018 and got his first prototypes of the deck in their tuck box in June of that year and began selling them on his own website. There were limitations with what he was able to do with the prototype that did not match the presentation he had envisioned for this deck, so he launched a Kickstarter fundraising project for the deck in September 2018. The deck’s artistry, uniqueness, and depth practically sold itself, and the project was completely funded within 6 days. In fact, the funding goal was more than doubled by the time the Kickstarter window closed, which allowed Tecce to add in additional cards, develop a lovely booklet, upgrade the box to include magnetic closure, silver gilt the card edges, AND develop a whole secondary deck, Wander Light. His end product is absolutely stunning.
The card stock Tecce chose is absolutely delicious. He notes that it is a 330 GSM card stock, which I am going to attempt to remember for future deck purchases because I am finding it to perfectly hit that sweet spot between rigid and pliable. The cards are sturdy and obviously durable, but they shuffle with ease. And the edging! I love an edged deck and have taken it upon myself to edge a few of my own, but I’ve always shied away from metallics. This silver gilt edge that Tecce chose is absolutely brilliant. I am positive the deck would have looked wonderful with black edges, but the silver elevates the whole deck. It makes the deck a little sexy, a little sinful and a whole lot of lux. I was very pleased by the quality of the gilding, too, since I’d initially thought that my hands would look like I’d pet a unicorn after I got done handling them. While they were a little sparkly, it was no big deal. I’m sure the gilding will continue to wear nicely as time goes by.
Normally, I don’t seem to register the backs of cards unless they are exceptionally ugly (Rider plaid is the worst). But the Shadow Light backs make me sit up and take notice. They have a dainty occult border of runes, astrological symbols, and tarot suit symbols running along the edges (and they’re reversible, so fear not ye who cannot abide a non-reversible back), which gives it a bit of a Gothic, edgy vibe. The main feature of the back isn’t an overtly occult symbol, though. Instead, it is an eclipsed sun with rays emanating from it. The motif put me in mind of how some people think of the Source: as a point from which all flows from and returns to. It is a motif that I find oddly comforting to have an iteration of on the back of a divination tool, and I really enjoy it.
But of course, the best part of Tecce’s Shadow Light Tarot is his artwork. His drawings are very intricate, his balance of blacks and whites on each card practically perfect, and his compositions are solid. Better yet, each card is absolutely full of detail. I grew up with Where’s Waldo? books as a solid part of my childhood experience, so I love cards that cram detail into their images. Tecce certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard. I’ve been working with this deck all summer, and every time I look at a card, I see something I’ve not seen before. I think that part of the effect is, in fact, all the detail and the other part of it is the black and white style. If there was a draw back to this deck, it might be that the black and white can make it difficult to notice some of those details. I can see that if I was far-sighted, I might struggle to read with it or even find the cards busy. I, however, find the slight difficulty to work in my favor as noticing ‘new’ details has been a great benefit for bumping up my intuitive reading skills.
I think that Tecce’s impeccable attention to detail extended to his decision to make all his cards panoramic, which is the runaway strength of this deck and why I think it was worth adding to my collection.
Now, Tecce is not the first artist to attempt a panoramic tarot. James R. Eads may have secured that honor with his limited run of Light Visions Tarot in 2013 and its more popular 2014 follow up, Prisma Visions Tarot. But for my money, Tecce did it better. Eads’s first deck is bordered, so his panorama is visually interrupted. In his second deck, only the minors are borderless and panoramic, which makes Prisma Visions feel too much like two separate decks to me. Tecce, on the other hand, has not only delivered seven different borderless panoramas. These panoramas include the majors, the four minors, and two small bonus card sets: cards representing the elements and the World Tree and some ‘archetype’ cards. I have mostly just appreciated the two bonus panoramas as art pieces, but I have experimented with using the archetype set as significator cards, and that’s been rather interesting.
But even more exciting than having a couple extra sets of cards is the fact that each of Tecce’s panoramas is also a 360° panorama. In other words, the Fool not only joins with the Magician and the Ace with the Two, the Fool also joins with the World and the Ace with the King. You could set them all up inside a cylinder if you wanted to, set the thing to spinning, and the image would never end.
For the panoramas alone, Shadow Light has become one of my all time favorite decks with which to do pathworking and study. You really could spend hours going over all the cards, noticing all the detail and weaving it into a narrative as you travel between the cards. The panoramic quality has not been terribly useful for most readings, but I have had a few that I’ve done where contiguous cards have popped up in the reading (say, a 9 and 10 of Swords in different spots of the spread), and I have taken the time to put the cards together and take some special time to consider how the spread positions may have a unique connection.
The only thing I’ve found a little disappointing with the Shadow Light Tarot has been its little white (or black) book. It is a gorgeously designed booklet, and given Tecce’s talent for design and his high standards, I would expect no less. I would, however, have liked more in the way of actual content. It has a nice page with the five primary panoramas, but the images are so tiny in this format, I really didn’t get much out of it. The only card descriptions are keywords, and while I thought the keywords were nicely insightful, I would have liked to have seen a bit more in the way of interpretative tools. Most of the booklet is a list of the Kickstarter backers, which is nice way to show appreciation for them, but it is also several pages that I’ll never reference.
As an extension of his Kickstarter campaign, Tecce also developed a miniature companion to Shadow Light: the Wander Light Tarot. I’m not really a huge fan of miniature decks as my hands are large enough to shuffle a standard tarot deck without much problem, and my penchant for highly detailed decks means that if I did get my favorite decks in miniature, I would be struggling to make items out.
But Wander Light is a whole different sort of miniaturization.
Instead of simply shrinking down his Shadow Light images, Tecce took the central figures of each one and removed them from their scenes. What is left is a beautifully minimal deck that is both modern and traditional: a very hard triple play to hit. I didn’t think I would care to read with the deck as I do love those detailed cards that give me lots of fodder for intuition to get me to click into some psychic moments, but I am reading with them way more than I thought I would. They’re great for helping me to actually learn and use keyword triggers, numerology, and other structural parts of the tarot that I can more or less ignore when I slide into that intuitive space. Weirdly enough, using this little deck is actually making me learn the tarot better.
Wander Light also contains more cards than the standard 78 of the tarot. Like Shadow Light, it contains elemental cards and one for the tree of life. It also contains cards for the sun, moon, all the planets, and Pluto (you’re still a planet to me!). I’ve removed these from the deck, and I’ve been using them as a sort of quick morning draw to tap into the broad “energy” of the day. It’s been working fairly well, but I think I’d rather have a whole bunch of astrology cards to do a sort of visual daily calendar. (I guess I’ll have to get a copy of the Astro Light oracle, then!)
My favorite thing to do with Wander Light, though, has been to mix it in with readings I’m doing with Shadow Light. The cards obviously look great together, so there’s no worries there. One of the things I’ve done was draw a Shadow Light card of the day, then pop three Wander Light cards beneath it to see how that theme could carry through in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Another thing I’ve done is if I have questions on a card in a spread I’ve done with Shadow Light, I’ll pull Wander Light cards and pop them in the corner to see if I can get further clarification. That’s been a visual game changer for me, as I tend to get overwhelmed when I see too many cards scattered before me.
Shadow Light has been a game changer deck for my own practice, and Wander Light has been an unexpected blessing, but I know black and white decks aren’t for everyone, and Shadow Light in particular can be a bit difficult for far sighted people to see. If you’re in that camp, then keep an eye on Tecce’s social media and his Waking Canvas website (or, better yet, become a patron) for updates on a new iteration of the deck: Lucid Light. Tecce has been in the process of colorizing his Shadow Light images, and a great side benefit of that decision has been that the cards look less busy. The color helps your eye differentiate between background and foreground and all the various details, and also uses color to highlight especially important elements. I am trying very hard to not grow my tarot collection, but I have a feeling Lucid Light is destined to be a part of it when it’s released.
Tecce is an independent deck creator and sells his decks almost exclusively on his own website. Shadow Light currently retails for $75 USD, Wander Light retails for $33 USD, and the pair can be bundled together for $99 USD.
As I mentioned in my last post, I wanted a copy of the J.K. Waite tarot ever since I was a dorky high school kid getting her first real tarot reading. My favorite reader used this deck, and I was instantly smitten with its rich colors and unique tweaks to Rider Waite Smith imagery. But back then, I only knew it as the Japanese “Tarot Book and Cards” deck, and that made it really difficult to track down. When I finally learned enough information about the deck to find it without combing through every single tarot listing on eBay, I was floored by what the vendors were asking. Two hundred and twenty-five dollars (and more!) is too darn much money to spend on a stack of paper, particularly one that’s not even 50 years old.
I still wanted that stack of paper though, so I occasionally tracked the various listings I’d find. Over time, I noticed that the same handful of people were the ones selling the J.K. Waite decks. At first I thought that these listings were not selling and the vendor was just renewing an expired auction. But then I noticed that a deck would sell and that the vendor would list a different deck a few weeks later. It occurred to me then—probably belatedly—that these vendors were probably buying these decks from Japanese auction sites where they would certainly be more common (and therefore way less than $200+) and were just re-selling them on US and European sites to maximize their profit.
So the primary trick to tracking down a cost-effective J.K. Waite deck isn’t to obsessively track eBay auctions or Facebook tarot swaps, but to go directly to Japanese auction sites. This can be a tricky hurdle as you might try to look for an eBay Japan and come up empty handed (eBay Japan folded in 2004). That doesn’t mean that the Japanese don’t use auction sites, though! They just use different ones. Some of the largest Japanese vending websites are Rakuten and Mercari, but the closest (and most popular) eBay-like site is Yahoo Auctions.
Navigating Japanese auction sites can really be intimidating. I think most English speakers can fake our way through most of the Indo-European languages, what with the similar alphabets and all the cognates and common roots the words share. There is none of that familiarity with Japanese, though, and functional illiteracy is terrifying. Throw on top of that a currency where everything looks like it costs thousands of dollars, and these sites can induce a panic attack. But if you take a breath, you’ll realize that you know what a search bar looks like and what listings look like. And if you are really worried, you can always have Google Translate translate the page. (Not sure how to do that? Copy the Yahoo Auctions url. Go to Google translate and set the language in the first box to Japanese and paste the url in the text box below. Set the “translate” language to English, and a hyperlink to a translated Yahoo Auctions page will pop up. Click on it, and you can navigate the site in halfway decent English.) It certainly won’t be perfect, but it will get you surprisingly far.
You also don’t need to know Japanese to search for items. Again, Google Translate will get you surprisingly far. In the case of tarot, however, it is even easier. “Tarot” is not a Japanese word, which means that it has to be written out phonetically in katakana. It’s just as easy to type “tarot” as it is to write the katakana, so many Japanese sellers just use the English word. Therefore, if you simply enter “tarot” into the search bar, you’ll likely come up with at least 3000 results. Entering タロット (“tarot” in katakana) will get you a virtually identical selection.
If you are familiar with pictures of the J.K. Waite deck, you can take an hour and quickly scan through all the thumbnail images to see if you can find a listing. That may found tedious—and it is—but in the case of the J.K. Waite deck, scanning through the images might be the best way to actually find a copy. Unlike searching for, say, a 1972 Sunburned Magician US Games Rider Tarot deck on eBay…you don’t exactly have a lot of deck specific keywords for the J.K. Waite. Part of this problem is because the deck doesn’t have a true official name, but the other part is that the only title it has—Tarot Deck and Book—are words so generic they are bound to be part of nearly every tarot listing. Searching by the author’s name—Alexandria Mokusei-ou—is similarly broad because he is a prolific author and deck creator, and therefore you will still find dozens of different books and decks and hundreds of listings if you search his name. In the end, there are not really any strong key words that will directly lead you the handful of listings for the J.K. Waite. On the bright side, the lack of easy keywords means you have a good chance of finding a copy that is being sold for very little. If you do want to try to narrow the search, however, these are some of the more useful terms:
|tarot book and cards |
(the ostensible title of the deck)
|tarot introduction and fortune telling|
(the subtitle on the accompanying red book)
|Alexandria Mokusei-ou (Jupiter King)|
(the deck creator)
|Alexandria Mokusei-ou’s name |
on the green box cover
|Seigan (Seikan) Nakajima |
(the deck illustrator)
(the deck publisher)
Over the last six months or so, J.K. Waite decks have usually sold on Yahoo Auctions for somewhere between 2800 and 6000 yen (about $25 to $55 USD). There are certainly bargains to be had, though. I won my own J.K. Waite for 1500 yen ($14.80 at the time). It was a pristine 4th printing still in its original shrink wrap, so excellent cards can be found for under the average price range. If you don’t want to bother with the hassle of trying to find a deck on auction, you can also check out Amazon Japan’s listing for the deck. The decks are almost always more expensive on Amazon than they are at auction—generally 8000 to 17000 yen (about $75 to $160 USD)—but they will still end up being less in the end than buying a deck in the US or Europe.
The total cost of the deck will have at least one more component, though: shipping. Shipping from Japan can be very expensive. A small 2 pound package (pretty close to what this deck will weigh once packaging is factored in) with 2-5 business day FedEx delivery to the US East Coast can be over $90. There are, however, a lot more economical options. (In fact, I don’t think anyone defaults to FedEx.) The company EMS also offers a 2-5 business day option, and their rate for a small 2 pound package is about $27.50. Similar rates with other shipping options (such as Parcel Post Airmail or SAL) also hover around the $30 mark, but have a much longer shipping window than EMS. Seamail options can be the most affordable at around $15, but the item can take 1-3 months to arrive…and a lot of handling damage can happen during that time. In general, it’s a good idea to go with EMS, and it is easy enough to mentally add $30 to the purchase price of a deck to get a generous estimation of shipping outside Japan.
Once you have found a deck and are ready to bid on it or purchase it, you will likely find that you can’t actually buy it. I’m not sure why, but it’s really tricky for most Japanese vendors to accept payment from shoppers outside Japan. You could actually buy many Japanese decks (and other items, too) fairly painlessly from Amazon Global, but the J.K. Waite is only sold on Amazon through third party vendors, so it is not eligible to be sold through Global.
There’s pretty much two options at this point. If you have a friend living in Japan, you can politely ask them to bid on your auction, receive the package, and then mail it onto you. Or you can use a proxy buying service, which is just a company that does all of that but also lets you avoid calling in an awkward favor.
There are a few proxy buying services for Japan, but I think White Rabbit Express is the most user friendly of the lot. Their website is incredibly comprehensive and answers practically every question you could have, not only for their service but also on how to use it to buy from the various large vendors. They also have excellent (and timely, once you factor in a big time difference!) responses if you contact them directly.
The way White Rabbit’s proxy service works is that you give them the URLs of the things you want them to buy, and then describe the item and the price. This helps avoid mistakes from accidentally entering the wrong URL. You then pay for the item and White Rabbit’s service fees. White Rabbit’s representatives then buy it and store it in a mailbox in their warehouse for you. When all your various orders are in and you’re ready for them to mail the items to you, they pop everything in a box and ship it to you with the shipping company you choose. If you’re buying many items, this practice of combining many orders into one large package saves money as the first kilogram in international shipping is the most expensive; the weight to price ratio gets smaller beyond that. In the end, White Rabbit will give you two different charges per transaction. The first charge consists of the retail price of the item, the domestic shipping to the White Rabbit Express warehouse, and White Rabbit’s handling fees. The second charge is for the international shipping to you.
I found White Rabbit’s fees to be pretty reasonable. At the time I purchased my J.K. Waite, White Rabbit charged a $4 per shop (total order) fee and a $1 per item fee. They also charge a service free of 9.9% of your item(s) purchase price. If your total purchase price is below about $40, then you are only charged an $8 minimum total fee (which includes the shop and item fees). It’s really not that bad. If you were asking a friend to order and mail your items, you’d probably gift them that much or more as a thank you for their trouble.
There’s only two things to keep in mind when using this proxy service. The first is that if you’re bidding on an auction, you give White Rabbit your maximum price up front as they will only submit one bid (they promptly refund any difference once the auction closes, including the entire cost if you do not win). The second is that while you can place an order 24/7, White Rabbit only operates during their business hours. There’s a huge time difference between Japan and the US East Coast, too: 10 A.M. Friday morning in Tokyo is 9 P.M. Thursday in New York City. There’s no last minute bidding using a proxy service, so I would recommend only bidding on auctions that have at least 24 hours left before they end…maybe even 48 to 72 hours if you’re shopping on Friday. That should give White Rabbit’s representatives plenty of time to register your bid.
When I went through this whole process to buy my deck, I won my auction for $14.80 USD and White Rabbit’s fees and domestic shipping within Japan totaled $12.86. I could have chosen a cheaper international shipping option, but I did want to go with EMS, and that came to $25.84. So the deck came to $53.50 all in, and it only took 5 days from the time the auction ended to when the deck arrived at my front door. Compared to the hundreds it would cost to purchase the deck in the United States, I consider my purchase a total steal.
The J.K. Waite is a fabulous deck, and the inflated pricing on English-language websites shouldn’t keep those who are interested in it from securing a copy of their own. While I wouldn’t say these decks are readily available on Japanese sites, they’re not exactly the rarest decks either. From what I’ve seen, one or two a month come up for auction. Hopefully others who are interested in this amazing deck will benefit from my experience of tracking one down. It certainly was not a quick process for me to figure out!
The summer of 2019 was really atypical for me. For the first time in my teaching career, I will be teaching all the same classes this upcoming year as I did last year, so I didn’t have to spend 2 months writing curricula. In addition, my mother broke her arm at work, and was ultimately given three months off in order to recuperate. My mother and I haven’t had large swaths of time together in over a decade, so I ended up spending nearly the entire summer break with her. I’m still not out of the broom closet to her, so that meant putting most witchy things on hiatus. All I managed to accomplish was reading a couple books via Kindle. I did, however, take the opportunity to research ‘rare’ tarot decks that I’ve always wanted but never thought I’d be able to own. For me, the deck at the absolute top of that list was the J.K. Waite Tarot.
I think everyone who has an interest in tarot remembers their first reading. Mine was when I was a teenager. I used my freshly-minted drivers license to go to a psychic fair at Camp Chesterfield (a spiritualist community near where I grew up), and one of the readers was using this deck. It was the colors that drew me in. This deck is absolutely dripping in crimson, cerulean, turquoise, seafoam green, pink, lilac, daffodil, grape…well, it’s a whole Crayola box of color. While that may have grabbed my eye, it was the images that kept me interested. These cards aren’t Pamela Colman Smith’s artwork…but they are a really close clone. I quickly became obsessed with finding all the details in each image and thinking about what they could symbolize.
Not long after that, some friends and I went to a store where they sold tarot cards. The Magician on the yellow box of the Rider Tarot reminded me of the Chesterfield reader’s cards, but I was pretty disappointed when I began to flip through that deck. The classic Rider Tarot is heavy on the yellows and oranges and relies on a sky blue to keep the deck looking varied, and its current printing is downright sloppy. (The Rider Tarot is so much better in vintage decks.) It looked so flat to me in contrast with the deck I remembered that I couldn’t bring myself to buy it.
It was a while before I made it back to Chesterfield, but when I was finally able to sit with my reader again, I asked her about the deck she was using.
She showed me the card box, which was a tan one a bit like my brown snap case pictured above. Like mine, it just said “Tarot” on it, which wasn’t terribly helpful. I asked if she knew anything more about the deck, so she went back to her home after the fair and returned with the rest of the packaging she had. She showed me the green box, the blue slip cover and the red book, but sadly didn’t know anything more about the deck. She didn’t even know if it had a title beyond “Tarot Book & Cards.” All she knew is that it had been a gift from an army friend who had been stationed in Japan for awhile.
Back in 2000, the Internet had become fairly mainstream, and online retailers like eBay had gained enough credibility that people had become less afraid that using them would result in identity theft. I thought it wouldn’t take much time to track down a copy, but no matter how much I searched, I couldn’t find this deck anywhere. “Tarot Book & Cards” is hardly an identifying search term, and “Japanese Tarot” or “Green Box Japanese Tarot” wasn’t much better. Eventually I gave up the search.
Fast forward to 2016/2017. By this point, I’d developed a real fondness for Pamela Colman Smith’s artwork, and I’d begun to research the history of this deck and the Pams A, B, C, and D variations. One of the websites I referenced when learning about these different printings was Dusty White’s WaiteSmith.org. And it was during one of my visits to the site when I scrolled down a page and found something that looked like this:
That was it! That was the deck I’d been trying to track down! Someone else actually knew what it was! Thanks to Dusty’s description of the deck, I learned that this nameless deck is often referred to by English-speaking collectors as the “Waite = J.K.” deck. Dusty didn’t mention how the deck acquired this name, and I’ve never heard anyone else call it that. In fact, most collectors I’ve seen discuss it tend to prefer “J.K. Waite.” With some additional research and searching, however, I came across one copy of the deck that included a little piece of paper, which I’ve pictured below. This paper is the only think in all the packaging that gives the deck a name in English, and that name is “The Waite – JK Tarot Deck.” I’m sure that this flyer was included in most, if not all, copies when they were new. The flyer also is a handy place that lists the deck creators: Alexandria Mokusei-ou, the man who directed the card creation and wrote the guidebook, and Seigan Nakajima, the man who illustrated them. The deck was published by Tairiku Shobou, and they kept it in print from 1975 until 1989.
The information on Dusty’s website finally gave me enough information to actually make good searches. Within minutes of locating Dusty’s site, I had found three listings for the deck on eBay and Etsy. I was also crushed when I saw how much people were asking for it. As time went by, I never found the deck for sale on an English site under $225, and I frequently saw it closer to $500. That is ridiculous. So I largely gave up trying to find a copy of my own.
I did put my obsessive-compulsive tendencies to good use, though. I tried to track down as much information as I could about the deck. Sadly, Dusty White’s website has pretty much most of the information one can find in English…but I’ve got a couple very good friends who have moved to Japan and enjoy tracking weird things down. Through them I was able to learn that this deck really has no name, even in Japanese. Its creator, however, is very well known within the fortune telling scene. Alexandria Mokusei-ou is a fairly elusive figure, and he only seems to exist in the fortune telling world, where he has been a prominent figure since the early 1960s. All that is publicly known about Mokusei-ou’s life is that he was born in 1932 in Kobe, and that he still lives in Kobe to this day. In fact, he runs a shopfront there where you can make appointments to have him read for you!
Part of why Mokusei-ou doesn’t have much of a footprint outside fortune telling is that his name is—in fact—a pseudonym. According to my Japanese friends, the fact that his name is a pseudonym is obvious when you see it written out in Japanese. It translates into Alexandria Jupiter King or Alexandria King of Jupiter, which solves the mystery of where the “J.K” in “J.K. Waite” came from: It is the Jupiter King’s Waite deck!
While it is difficult to learn more about the Jupiter King outside fortune telling, there’s plenty to learn about him within it. He has been a very prolific author and deck creator: I’ve counted at least 10 other decks that he has developed (though some may be oracles), and he’s written at least 20 books. His career in Japan seems to rivals those of Rachel Pollack and Mary K. Greer here in the States. In addition, he seems very well-respected in his field, and many people laud his accuracy rate in predictions, too. Heck, he even has his own fortune telling app available on the Apple Store!
But back in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Mokusei-ou had only just begun work as a fortune teller, thanks to a journalist friend who recommended him for a fortune telling feature somewhat equivalent to the horoscope column in American papers. He fell into his tarot career by publishing some brief descriptions of each of the cards in Japanese. Few people at the time had access to such information as most of the material available at the time was in European languages, so Mokusei-ou found a very ready and appreciative audience. And many inquired as to where they could find some of these decks for themselves.
At about this time, U.S. Games, Samuel Weiser, and Rider & Co., were starting the whole process of hashing out copyrights and publishing rights for the Rider Waite Smith deck, and importing it to Asia likely became much more complicated than it would have been just a few years prior. Therefore, Mokusei-ou took the opportunity to pull together his own version of the deck. He contracted Seigan Nakajima to produce the art. Nakajima was born in 1928 to the cartoonist Kikuo Nakajima, so he was surrounded by art from an early age. He had been in charge of the cover art for SF Magazine from its inaugural edition until 1968. He produced a lot of science-fiction related art and illustrations between the 1950s and 1970s, and may be best known for producing the cover art for the Hayakawa book series.
I think that perhaps Nakajima agreed to work with Mokusei-ou because of an apparent shared interest in Jewish culture. After he completed illustrating this deck, Nakajima went on to specialize in representing the stories and experiences of Japanese Jews, culminating in editing a book by Kawamori Eiji on Jews in Japan and how the religion had been developing in the nation up to that point. Mokusei-ou was obviously influenced by A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith’s deck, and much of the art is similar. However, a brief look through the deck also shows a strong influence from Paul Foster Case. Many of the major arcana cards tend to incorporate elements of the B.O.T.A. deck in with more Waite-like imagery. Part of Case’s influence is a more explicit focus on Hebrew elements of tarot. I can imagine that this could have been a fruitful talking point between the J.K. Waite’s creator and illustrator, at the very least. Together, they took all these influences and combined them with popular mid-century colors and slight tweaks to various images to augment their meaning or to improve their aesthetic for the Japanese culture.
In the end, they created a deck that is both familiar and strange, traditional and innovative, timeless yet grounded within the 1970s. It is a genuinely fun deck to work with, for it challenges your expectations and makes you approach the RWS in a new way. I wish I could read the accompanying book so that I could learn more of why Mokusei-ou and Nakajima made the changes they did.
Alas, I don’t have the ability to record a walkthrough of the deck. But luckily for me, Angelo Nasios has already done so:
While many vintage decks are enjoying reprints today, it is unlikely that the J.K. Waite will be reprinted. Tairiku Shobou folded in 1992 after rebranding itself from an occult publisher to a short film distributor to a video software company. (Along the way, it may even have created adult material, if my auction searches for this deck are any indication.) This ties up the publishing rights, and with Mokusei-ou’s incredible numbers of other decks and books out in the market, he has no real incentive to untangle them and push for a re-print of this early deck. Therefore, if this deck interests you, you will need to track down a vintage copy.
I have a truly shocking number of Rider Waite Smith decks in my tarot collection. I’m not talking about RWS clones…I’m talking about various editions of the deck drawn by Pamela Colman Smith. No one needs as many versions of what amounts to the same deck as what I have. And yet, I do not regret my latest acquisition, the Pam’s Original Art Only deck, in the least. The Pam’s Original deck is a self-published Rider Waite Smith deck that was restored by the Bosnian artist Irena Balaban. I can’t say that I had high expectations for this deck when I ordered it. After all, self-publishing is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to quality. But boy, was I surprised at just how much I enjoyed it.
When I first learned about Balaban’s first RWS deck, the Pam’s Vintage Tarot, I was a bit concerned that it was bootleg of a U.S. Games or AGM-Urania publication, and that one or both of them would be cracking down on it for copyright infringement. Both of those companies hold publishing rights to the “Pam A” versions in different countries, and they rabidly defend those rights. I had zero interest in supporting ‘counterfeit’ decks, so I barely paid attention to those who were raving about their Pam’s Vintage decks. But then I learned that Balaban’s RWS deck didn’t derive from Pam A (or Pam B, C, or D for that matter), but from the earliest deck of all.
While the first run of “Pam A” in 1910 is often considered to be the first edition of the RWS, A.E. Waite did sell a limited number of “proof copies” at a local arts and crafts fair, and they continued to be sold up until about April of 1910 when Rider released Pam A.
These proof copies have subsequently come to be known as the “roses and lilies” deck thanks to the design on its backing, which is very different from the “cracked mud” or “pebbled” design that was featured on the subsequent Rider decks. Today, this is a really rare deck. Only about five are known to exist. In fact, up until about 2002 when a “roses and lilies” deck went up for sale on eBay, a lot of tarot nerds doubted the 1909 deck even existed. (Lo Scarabeo and Stuart Kaplan ended up in a minor bidding war for that deck, and Kaplan won it for $8200. He then went on to publicly show it at the ITS Tarot Congress in Chicago later that year.)
Balaban states that her RWS decks come from an Australian collector’s roses and lilies deck. From what I understand, the roses and lilies deck is a pretty fragile deck. It was published on unlaminated art paper rather than card stock, so the cards themselves are more easily damaged and the printing can rub off. (In fact, the quality of these cards was so poor that they were recalled in 1910. If you returned your roses and lilies deck to Rider, you were sent an early Pam A in exchange.) As you can see in the image below, which compare’s Fools from Balaban’s Pam’s Original with a roses and lilies Fool and Pam A fool from Saskia Jensen’s collection, the ink has either worn off or wasn’t able to fully saturate the paper of the roses and lilies.
In her deck descriptions, Balaban reports that the Australian collector (presumably because they wanted to use the deck but not destroy it) created high resolution scans of each card and provided them to Balaban, asking her to make certain modifications for how they wanted to use the deck. Balaban later turned that into Pam’s Vintage Tarot. When Pam’s Vintage started gaining some popularity, others asked Balaban if she could produce a version without the antiquing effects. That was what largely resulted in the development of the Pam’s Original Art Only deck.
I have to admit, part of me was interested in the Pam’s Original Art Only deck as I figured it would probably be the closest I would ever get to seeing a real roses and lilies deck. However, I would have likely passed on it if that was my only reason for acquiring it as there isn’t too much difference between the roses and lilies and Pam A. As it transpired, though, I was in the market to acquire a more traditionally colored RWS deck to reference and share with others in my study groups, and I definitely did not want to get a U.S. Games Rider Waite deck. (I really hate the plaid backs and the copyright information on the card faces.) Prior to learning about the Pam’s Original Art Only deck, I had been trying to acquire a 2016 English edition of AGM-Urania’s Tarot of A.E. Waite. It is a pretty great Pam A facsimile (though it doesn’t replicate Pamela Coleman Smith’s calligraphy for card titles), but unfortunately U.S. Games has essentially forced it out of print on the grounds that it is too similar to the current version of its Rider Tarot Deck. I thought the Pam’s Original would give me the coloring I desired without the features I disliked all without supporting U.S. Games, so I took the risk.
I am glad I did. I do have to say, I really enjoy the deck. It’s bright and happy with all the lemony yellows and sky blues, and it looks sharp as all get out in a reading thanks to Balaban’s decision to keep the deck borderless. There are some issues I hadn’t anticipated, though, but those are largely because I’m used to pretty clean revisions of Pam A, and the roses and lilies is a “glitchier” run. The wear and print issues with roses and lilies are obvious in the Pam’s Original, but I weirdly hadn’t anticipated that when I ordered the deck. Therefore, I was a little disappointed when I saw the Fool card. He looks pretty good in the picture above, but in real life the blacks in his tunic read more as a dark grey, and the details in the tunic are a bit blurrier than I thought they would be. Having subsequently seen the roses and lilies Fool, I now understand why that is the case, but I was taken aback at first.
I was also similarly disappointed with a lot of the “black background” cards like the Devil and the Tower. The Tower, which I’ve pictured above, is the worst of these. I guess a lot of the “large field” coloring of roses and lilies was variable, and the wear and flecks of other colors are really obvious to me on the black background cards. I have seen a roses and lilies Tower, and it is obvious that the issue was in the original card and not Balaban’s edits of it. However, Balaban’s Tower does look a little cropped in, and I think that may be augmenting the original’s flaws. Unfortunately, I think the Tower is the most unattractive card in this deck, which I lament as I quite enjoy it normally.
Finally, in order to make these cards a standard tarot size and borderless without cropping in too much, Balaban had to do away with the title banners for the majors, aces, and court cards. She does some pretty creative photoshopping to fill in the missing art, and I admire what she was able to accomplish. It is not, however, perfect. On several cards, there are some obvious “lines” where you can see the patterns jump, and if you inspect the cards for a minute, you can usually see the repeats. For me, the two most noticeable photoshops occur on the Magician and the Hierophant cards. To Balaban’s credit, all the patterning in the foliage and the monk’s robes would make it difficult to cleanly photoshop without creating a line unless you were really skilled at restorative digital art. Sometimes, though Balaban also uses a blurring technique, and I find those stand out terribly. Pamela Coleman Smith’s artwork isn’t blurry. There may be some lines that don’t print as neatly as others, but there aren’t outright blurs. Heck, the technology to create that effect didn’t even exist then. I find the worst of these is on the Sun card’s horse, which I’ve pictured above. It bothers me, but I also understand that it would have been very difficult to fill in that artwork otherwise.
My particular deck was printed by DriveThru cards, a print-on-demand service. I had incredibly low expectations of quality, but I was pleasantly surprised: the cards themselves are really solid. They are a hair thinner than those of the rest of my decks, though I can’t decide if that is because the cardstock is of a lower weight or because the lamination is thinner (or both!). The cards are not, however, thin enough to have been noticeable as such if I hadn’t had other decks to hand. I don’t think the thinner cards is a bad thing. In fact, I’m pleased that they’re more flexible right out of the box because they shuffle a good deal easier without being “broken in.” I’ve not used them extensively yet, but I do think they are thick enough to stand up to decently heavy use. The cardstock does have a slight linen effect to it, and that combined with a lighter lamination means the cards look fairly matte straight out of the box. Matte is a desirable finish these days because that means they’ll photograph well without too many awkward contortions on the part of the photographer. There are a couple cards that don’t have the cleanest cut, and you can feel the rougher edges, but overall the quality is far above expectations. I’ve seen much worse productions from large publishers.
What I love most about the cards, though, is the fact that they are, in fact, just the artwork. No borders, no numbers, no titles…just art. I’ve never seen that on any other RWS deck. At this stage in the game, I don’t need that information. I know what the eight of swords is…and if I forget, I’m fully capable of counting the darn swords in the picture. I’m also picking up that when I read for someone who isn’t terribly familiar with tarot, they are ridiculously impressed that I know what all the cards are called. It is a silly little thing, but I think it’s making the reading feel slightly more “magical” to them…or at least making me look a shade more professional! As another bonus, removing the titles is a dead simple way to universalize the cards. I’d be just as comfortable using this deck to read for a Russian as I would an American, and that’s no small thing.
More important, at least for me, is that ever since I hacked the borders off of my Robin Wood, I’ve been finding that borderless decks help me “sink into the scene of the cards” a bit better. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I am finding that I’m more readily able to create a narrative out of a card spread with borderless cards. It’s a bit like the borders are acting a bit like blinders on a horse: they keep me focused on the thing that’s in front of me, not on the interplay of that thing with its surroundings. With this deck, I don’t have to get scissor blisters, which is a definite bonus. And not having the titles at the bottom of the majors, aces, and courts seems to help augment that “sinking” even more. It’s a really cool deck to use, if only for that reason. I definitely have preferred them to my other decks over the last couple of weeks when it comes to meditative contemplation. Who would have thought such a small change would have that profound an effect?
In person, the bright yellows and blues in this deck aren’t my favorite coloration, though they are a heck of a lot better than the mustard yellows, bright oranges, and pale blues I’ve seen in others! However, I do think they photograph very well. Unless I’m doing an extreme close up where you can see some of the color flecks and variances, the cards look extremely sharp in pictures. I would definitely feel comfortable busting them out for public readings in the Instagram age.
If you’re interested in tracking down a copy of this deck, your best bet would be to visit Balaban’s website, My Lucky Card, or her Instagram for the most up-to-date information. If you’re in the European Union, you can order any of her decks direct from the store section of that site. You’ll be able to get a really sturdy 2-part box if you’re an EU customer. If you are in the United States, your best bet is to order from her designer page on DriveThru Cards. Unfortunately, DriveThru cards only provides a very basic tuck box. If you are elsewhere in the world, your best bet is her designer page on The Game Crafter website. Game Crafter also offers a tuck box, but I believe a clear acrylic box is also an option. You can also order decks through her Etsy shop. If you do that, you’re likely to receive the European boxes.
Because Balaban is a self-publisher, the runs of her cards are fairly small. I believe she says 1,000 decks is about her maximum. That means that she can change her editions fairly quickly, depending on interest. In the two or so weeks that have elapsed since I received my deck, she’s stopped selling the Pam’s Original with the blue roses and lilies back. In its place is the same face of the cards, but with a modified “pebbled” back a bit like the Pam A, B, C, and D cards. Therefore, if you like one of her decks, it’s better to order sooner rather than later.
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!