Tarot decks for beginners that aren't RWS clones

"What is the best tarot deck for beginners?"

This is probably the most common question in every tarot group, thread, chat, etc. Which makes sense! It's all about where to start. And the most common answer... find a traditional Rider-Waite-Smith deck and start there.

And you know what? Fine. The RWS is the basis of most tarot decks out there. It's the foundation, the building blocks of so much of tarot symbology and knowledge. I easily admit that. I just refuse to laud it as the only option for beginners.

Because you know what follows this question whenever someone slides into my inbox or DMs?

"I've tried the RWS because everyone recommends it and I just can't connect? Am I doing something wrong?"

It breaks my heart. There's nothing worse with finding a new source of insight only to be made to feel like you're doing it wrong. Especially when it's a practice that is built on symbolic interpretation- that is, everyone has their own point of view to bring to the practice and their own journey to take with it.

Here's something tarot traditionalists seem to have a hard time understanding. The Rider-Waite-Smith, commonly abbreviated RWS, is not for everybody. Beyond understanding that there are other traditions of tarot, like Marseille and Thoth, let's all finally take a deep breath and look beyond ourselves.

I'll put it plainly. The traditional RWS is very white, very cis, very het, very ableist, very thin... and on and on I could go.

The majority of people are not.

So it bears considering that not everyone would find it the best or even safest portal into the tarot. Belittling folks for looking elsewhere does nothing but reinforce the old crumbling walls of ignorance and elitism. No one is more special than someone else for having studied tarot the "right way". It's as silly a notion as the idea that your first deck has to be a gift. Throw all these myths in the trash.

And perhaps for you, the RWS was your first and most-loved deck. I honor that. I only suggest that it is not necessarily the only way in.

I'll acknowledge the reality that most tarot decks out there are RWS-based in imagery, and ask querents to keep in mind that it is the basis of many of the knowledge sources out there. In fact, I do recommend coming back to the RWS imagery at some point in the tarot study just to get a sense of the foundations (you don't even have to buy it, there are so many free reading resources out there!). What I'll never do is provide it as the one and only option for learning and connecting to tarot.

Not when there's so much out there nowadays both for beginning and intermediate study. Certainly not while tarot remains a study that relies on a personal connection to discern meaning.

So what do I recommend to tarot beginners in my DMs, anyway?

Well, you'll be not at all shocked to find that most of these recommendations will be RWS-based decks, after all as I stated RWS imagery is the foundation for so much of what is familiar to us nowadays in the tarot. I chose these decks because, in my opinion, they provided much-needed reinterpretations of tarot imagery that allowed for expansive rather than exclusive community.

 aces from the Sasuraibito Tarot

aces from the Sasuraibito Tarot

Sasuraibito Tarot

Dear sweet goddess, this deck is beautiful.

It goes so much further than a beautiful aesthetic, however. Stasia Burrington's command of imagery is breathtaking and she finds a way to use simple and easy to connect with portrayals of lived experiences that crack open the profound meaning we seek when we come to our tarot practice.

 

 lovelies from the Wild Unknown Tarot

lovelies from the Wild Unknown Tarot

The Wild Unknown Tarot

This has to be one of the most popular modern tarot decks out there. Personally, I never connected with the imagery, but even I couldn't ignore how attractive it was to folks just starting out looking for an approach to tarot that wasn't beating them down with tradition. The art of the Wild Unknown is focused, minimal, almost pip like in some of the minor arcana. An added bonus is that it has no people! Which is a more popular preference in tarot decks than most would like to admit to. It's also straight-up beautiful. Like I said, I never connected with it personally but when my sister was looking for her first tarot deck, this was one of my first recommendations and it ended up being the one she chose.

 the Empress from the Next World Tarot

the Empress from the Next World Tarot

The Next World

Tarot for the end of the world, when the revolution been come! There isn't a deck out there that feels anything like the apocalyptic, earth-shaking, freedom-visioning, Next World Tarot by Cristy C. Road. In its dystopic art is somehow captured the rotting decay of our current hegemonic world and the promise of a future that comes after, where freedom and healing is not just the vision but the unshakeable mission. I am constantly in awe of how connected both the trauma of walking through such a world is met with love, hope, and beauty. This is tarot for the revolution. For the activists, dreamers, warriors, and healers, Cristy C. Road has conjured a spellbook in 78 cards. If that sounds like your kind of calling, then this is the deck for you, this is where I invite you to begin.

 Fountain Tarot - photo credit:  Bone, Root & Herb

Fountain Tarot - photo credit: Bone, Root & Herb

The Fountain Tarot

This one here is for the stoic, the minimalist, the unrepentantly modern folks among us who aren't put off by beauty. Created by a synergist trio, Jason Gruhl, Jonathan Saiz, Andi Todaro, the Fountain Tarot is a darling of indie tarot publishing. If you love working with sacred geometry, modern art, and paired down but profound imagery you will love this deck.

 creator of Vials (Queen of Cups) is dripping  sauce  in the Numinous Tarot

creator of Vials (Queen of Cups) is dripping sauce in the Numinous Tarot

The Numinous Tarot

How do I love this deck? I cannot count the ways. Suffice to say that when I did an interview with Noel Heimpel about their gorgeous Numinous Tarot, the tile of "There is space in the magic" came naturally. I love this deck not just for how it makes space, but the ways in which it makes its best effort to do so in a way that makes the tarot accessible and resonant. It does this without pretension. There is no card in this deck that attempts to trick, deceive, or make it hard for the reader to connect with the imagery. It honors the RWS tradition without feeling handcuffed to its less than progressive qualities. It's magical, colorful, and just right for tarot beginners looking to work with a deck full of and full in humanity.

 classic and timeless, Thea's Tarot

classic and timeless, Thea's Tarot

Thea's Tarot

Thea's Tarot by Ruth West is a gorgeous rendition of traditional RWS imagery from a feminist and lesbian perspective. Despite its inception in 1984, it remains a timeless favorite for many readers. I've always found its imagery to be astonishingly accessible and easy to connect to. Better yet, Oliver Pickle's She is Sitting in the Night further draws out its timelessness by drawing it into modern queer culture that makes even more space for folks within the deck's imagery. While considered out of print, Metonymy Press occasionally offers deck+book sets that I encourage you to keep an eye out for! So worth it.

 some lovelies from the Mythical Goddess Tarot

some lovelies from the Mythical Goddess Tarot

The Mythical Goddess Tarot

And where would I be without my first love? You know I had to plug the Mythical Goddess Tarot by Sage Holloway and Katherine Skaggs. Unapologetically a deck of the divine feminine, the Mythical Goddess Tarot offered me a tarot perspective that not only resonated with me but also looked like me. At the time it felt like everything, of course now I know better. I'll be upfront and mention that its approaches to femininity are not perfect, often cis-centric. As a Black queer femme, I have found space in this deck for myself and have easily been able to queer it for my own readings. I acknowledge that this may not be everyone's experience. If you are interested in a deck with a diversity of race, age, and body type this deck will feel like just the ticket. Particularly if you have an attraction to different renditions of the Goddess archetype. 

The Tarot de Marseille

 photo of the CBD Tarot de Marseille from  Aeclectic Tarot

photo of the CBD Tarot de Marseille from Aeclectic Tarot

Of the non-RWS traditions, I consider the Marseille to be the most approachable. In most decks, the major arcana and courts are illustrated (quite cartoonishly in the older decks) and the minors are drawn pip style. The minors are the basis of my recommendation as they use lines, patterns, and direction to spark the intuition. If you like a deck with minimal distractions, I think you'd really enjoy the simplicity and beauty of the Marseille minor arcana.

 

I missed plenty others, I'm sure.

I've got a whole list of inclusive decks here at my Tarot of the QTPOC listing if you'd like more options. I just hope that for any tarot beginners (or more experienced readers), I've been successful in showcasing an alternative view of what the tarot can look like when just starting out.

What are your favorite starter decks? Are you a die-hard RWS fan or did you also find a different way in to the tarot? I'd love to know!