If you are completely new to tarot, or perhaps have studied a little bit but would like to take your practice further, you may be wondering what is the best tarot deck to use as a beginner? This is somewhat of a tricky question, because arguably one could pick up any deck for practice and study. Furthermore, one's preference for a particular artistic style will also play a significant factor in deciding which deck to choose.
However, there is one deck that I consider to be an essential study guide for those wishing to deepen their understanding of tarot as well as their intuitive faculty.
The deck that I am referring to is the Smith-Waite tarot deck, also known as the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) deck. There are many versions of this deck, however they are all based on the original drawings by artist Pamela Coleman Smith, under instruction from Arthur Edward
Waite, and published by the Rider Company in 1909.
There are 3 main reasons that set this deck apart, and why I am recommending this deck to beginners (or even those more experienced readers that have not used it prior):
It was the first deck to use pictorial images for the pips*
Prior to the WS deck, tarot decks were almost exclusively created in what is commonly known the Marseille tradition, where the 40 minor arcana cards showed "pips", essentially the number of symbols pertaining to each numbered card according to element. Allow me to demonstrate visually:
Above is the card for the 3 of Cups, with the left showing the WS version, and the right showing a "Marseille" version. The pictorial depiction of the WS version allows one to create a story, to describe certain actions taking place in the card, to extract an "essence" for the 3 of Cups of its core meaning. This is far harder to do in a "Marseille" deck, where just the 3 cups are shown.
Below is another example, the 6 of Wands.
In the WS version on the left, we can see someone riding a horse, surrounded by others. The rider's wand has a wreath typical of celebration and victory; further he/she is wearing a wreath on their head, and also they are the only one in the image riding a horse. All these details allow the reader to extract the core meaning of this card as a card of victory and success, and also one of leadership. This is not as easily done with the 6 wands drawn on the Marseille deck version shown on the right.
I should clarify that this in no means renders the Marseille decks any worse or less useful than the WS. On the contrary, the combination of number and element is an essential part of learning the tarot, and I personally consider Marseille decks invaluable for both study and practice, however not for the beginner level. *not including the Sola Busca which predates the WS deck, however the Sola Busca has a Major Arcana system that is vastly different in name and meaning to the 22 Major Arcana of tarot.
It is firmly embedded in tarot's historical and cultural heritage
Since its publication in 1909, the WS deck has served as the foundation upon which hundreds, if not thousands, of other decks have been created. It is not uncommon for new decks to state they follow the "RWS" tradition, meaning that their minor arcana more or less align with the WS meanings and energy.
This means that once you understand the WS, you will find it much, much easier to work with and understand a huge part of the modern tarot decks out there. It's a bit like having the password to Aladin's cave, in my opinion. Not only that, but many of the great books and courses on Tarot use the WS to illustrate their examples or teach the tarot.
Should you come across a tarot deck that appears to be rather different in meaning to the WS, it is often because the artist has followed the "Thoth" tradition, which refers to the Thoth tarot painted by Lady Frieda Harris under instruction from A Crowley. While the artwork in the Toth is undoubtedly stunning, there are many reasons I am not a fan of this deck that I won't elaborate on here.
It includes symbolism without overcrowding or blurring the essence of the meaning of each card.
In my personal opinion, this deck achieves a great balance between masterfully including symbolism in each card, whilst not allowing the symbols to detract the reader from the core meaning of the card. This I find to be very important for beginners: overcrowd an image with details, and some find it hard to keep to the track so to speak, instead veering off on tangents that often lead nowhere.
In the 9 of Swords to the left, one can automatically tell things are not going well for the protagonist: there is the darkness all around them, the 9 Swords are either above them or at head and heart level, and their posture speaks volumes.
However, there are some other elements to the card that can be explored further should one's attention be drawn to them: what is that pattern on the blanket (symbolic of security/warmth/cover/protection)? And the image on their bed (symbol of support/rest/respite)? These additional clues however do not take away from the overall energy and meaning of this card, though they do enhance it or give it hints as to where to look for help and guidance.
So if you are a beginner wondering what is the best tarot deck to start with, my personal recommendation is to go with the RWS, even if the artwork may not appeal to you. Once you have understood it and worked with it for a while, it will serve a great platform from which you can venture further and explore or work with other decks.