Deck Alternatives to the OG RWS By Beth Allen

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It is the best of times for tarot readers, it is the worst of times for tarot readers. While the explosion of decks onto the tarot scene in the past 10 to 15 years is exciting, it also can create Seven of Cups moments for readers who feel overwhelmed by so many choices. This is especially true for new readers who are trying to learn tarot and are faced with so many decks, as well as so many books about tarot.

Since its publication in 1909, the RWS (Rider-Waite-Smith) has become the most popular style of tarot in the U.S., eclipsing both the Thoth and Tarot de Marseille. The original illustrations by Pamela Colman Smith, with meanings by Arthur Waite, contain a myriad of mystical symbols with references to astrology, the Kabbalah, and numerology. The RWS offers students, both old and new to tarot, endless hidden doors with divinatory secrets behind them, and the keys to unlocking these mysteries are intuition and knowledge. But what happens if you don’t like the original RWS — or its many clones?

You’ve dutifully bought a deck with the original art to pair with the many books you got to learn the RWS system, but you find you don’t resonate with it, and your enthusiasm, once clear and bright like a full moon, now wanes like a sliver in the sky. Don’t despair, there are some new and wonderful alternative decks to choose from that follow the RWS system closely, or closely enough, to use with the many existing teaching tools out there.

Old Style Tarot, created by Alexander Ray and published by U.S. Games Systems, combines the original RWS meanings of the cards with picturesque Old World settings. A reader can wander flower-lined paths and rolling hills in the gentle European countryside or feel the gleeful abandon of a rowdy Maypole celebration in the world found within these cards. Even when giving prickly messages, the deck’s vibe is soothing and kind. The cards offer solace in harried times, making you feel as though you’re getting sound, practical advice from a loving grandparent. The deck has the standard 78 cards, with one extra — The Blank Card. This card lets the querent know that either the current situation is ambiguous or that the timing isn’t right for the question. The cards are slightly larger than standard size, with a semi-gloss finish and backs as pretty as a lace doily. The 100-page guidebook that comes with the deck is full of helpful information, explaining meanings for: Upright, Card’s Advice, Reversed, The Warning, and Quick Answer. This deck is perfect for an old soul who prefers a peaceful vintage flavor.

In contrast, we have Star Maiden Tarot by Hannah Kirchen, also published by U.S. Games. Following the RWS meanings, the art is colorful and quirky, with a sly sense of humor that lifts the mood. Lighthearted and irrepressibly cheeky and fun, the deck feels modern, with bright and beautiful folk art. It will tell you what you need to know like a good friend spinning stories over a strong cup of coffee. As calming as Old Style Tarot is, this deck buoys the spirits and reminds us to lighten up. Named after the Greek goddess Astraea, the 78-card deck is standard size with a laminated linen card stock and iridescent turquoise edging. The chunky guidebook that comes with it is 179 pages, providing a full page of interpretations and meanings for each card.

A couple of honorable mentions for alternative decks that follow the RWS system are the Fyodor Pavlov Tarot by artist Fyodor Pavlov and Ethereal Visions Tarot: Luna Edition by artist Matt Hughes, both published by U.S. Games. Pavlov’s watercolor and ink illustrations are timeless and modern, fusing a classical art style with cultural inclusion. Pavlov creates a diverse and loving landscape with cards that illustrate people of color, switch traditional depictions of gender, and introduce non-binary characters. The 78-card deck has a limited color palette but the art is vibrant and lush. The deck has gold gilding and comes with a 175-page hardcover guidebook packed with information. The Ethereal Visions Luna Edition showcases Hughes’ Art Nouveau style in shades of soft lavenders, blues, and turquoise with touches of silver foil stamping that adds the perfect amount of bling to enhance the deck’s beauty. Celebrating and representing all people, in all stages of life, the deck comes with a 140-page guidebook and two extra cards: The Well and The Artist.

Both decks’ adherence to the original RWS meanings make them perfect study decks, while each artists’ individual points of view allow for intuitive flow. We can be grateful for the abundance of tarot decks available to us. Whether a beginner or an advanced reader, tarot is always The High Priestess unraveling secrets with a developed spiritual knowledge, as well as The Hierophant teaching through established, mundane systems. So if the OG RWS isn’t your jam, perhaps one of these four decks can inspire you on your Fool’s journey.

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