Interested in learning how to read Tarot cards? If so, one of
your first decisions will be “What style of deck should I use”.
Although there are now hundreds of brands of Tarot decks, most
fall into one of three general styles — Marseilles,
Rider-Waite-Smith (also called Rider-Waite, or just RWS), and
There are 78 cards in a Tarot deck — 13 cards in each of four
different suits, plus an extra 22 cards called the “Trump”
cards. These 22 trump cards are known as the Major Arcana, the
remaining 56 cards are called the Minor Arcana. It’s the
treatement of the Major and Minor Arcana that determines which
general style your deck follows.
The first style — Marseilles — follows the traditional,
old-school style found in early Tarot decks. The artwork on the
Major Arcana tends to be simple and limited to only a few
colors. The Minor Arcana looks much like ordinary playing cards
— there are four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, Page) and 10
“pip” cards (Ace through Ten). Again, the artwork on the face
cards tends to be simple. The pip cards don’t have artwork other
than a “pip” count. For instance, a Five of Swords will have
five swords depicted on the card.
The Marseilles style looks so much like playing cards because
Tarot decks were originally used to play a card game! It wasn’t
until later that mystics began to use these decks for divinatory
The second style of deck — RWS (After Rider, the publisher,
Waite, the designer, and Smith, the artist) — was published in
the early 1900’s. It was designed from the very beginning for
Because of this, the artwork is much more complex and symbolic.
The Major Arcana and the face cards are much more colorful,
lifelike, and detailed. It’s the Minor Arcana, though, where
you’ll find the main difference.
Rather than use simple counts, the artist (Pamela Coleman Smith
— who also illustrates childrens adventure stories) decided to
draw vignettes of people engaged in some phase of everyday life.
Because of this, the pip cards are highly enriched and yield
many thoughtful perspectives — what are the people thinking,
what are their motivations, what are their fears, etc — to
enrich Tarot readings.
The final deck style is the Thoth style — named after a deck
designed by Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Freida Harris.
The Thoth deck was intended for magickal use from the very
beginning. The paintings are surrealistic and highly symbolic.
Thoth adds a new technique to the mix, though. Each card of the
Minor Arcana has a subheading describing some motivation or
aspect — Lust, Fear, blah, blah, etc. Because of this, some
readers find it easy to read with Thoth decks. Thoth decks also
make it easy to draw from other esoteric disciplines —
astrology, for example — in order to create inspired Tarot
Most decks you’ll find in a bookstore will follow one of these
three basic styles. Marseilles styles will use pip counts, RWS
styles will use pip scenes, and Thoth styles tend to be
surrealistic but label the Minor Arcana with additional
About the author:
Joey Robichaux rides the weekly consultant road warrior circuit.
He uses Tarot to find perspectives on business problems and also
maintains dozens of web sites, including one of the oldest sheet
music websites on the internet — Free Sheet Music at
FreeSheetMusic.net — and also the Woodsong Tarot
site at WoodsongTarot.com.