Review Date: 12/10/2018
ARCANA TAROT PLAYING CARDS
Disclosure: Review copy provided by Artist, purchasing second deck for giveaway
I’m Zak Zyz, author of five books, host of the Surreal Symphony, and fanatical collector of board games and tarot cards. Today I’m doing a review of the Second Edition Arcana Tarot Playing cards.
This deck was drawn by artist Chris Ovidyenko and published by his company Dead on Paper. This is the second edition of Arcana, a full 78 card tarot deck in standard playing card size. They're printed in Taiwan by Expert Playing Card Company.
The first edition of Arcana was a tarot themed playing card deck of 56 cards, which included four cards from the Tarot major arcana in place of the jokers. They were funded by an extremely successful kickstarter which raised $190,000, more than quadruple the campaign's original goal.
This deck popped up in my Amazon recommends a few weeks ago. The deck was quite expensive for a themed playing card deck at $35, but the art style and theme appealed to me enough to buy it. It turned out to be a really good buy! I loved the art, design, and production value. My only major criticism was that without a major arcana, the cards were far too nice to play poker with and couldn't be used as a tarot deck either, so I could only recommend them to fellow collectors.
If you’re not familiar with tarot, the difference between a 78 card tarot deck and a 52 card playing card deck is twenty two extra trump cards, which are called the major arcana, and an extra court card which is generally called a page in each suit of the minor arcana, which are the standard four suits of ace through king. The major arcana is all about huge, powerful ideas. It includes cards you may be familiar with like Death, The Fool, The Hanged Man, and my personal favorite, The Tower. The Tower represents the divine word dispensing with all pretense in a flash of irrevocable change.
As part of that review, I searched for more info on the deck and found out there was already an expansion deck available containing the full major arcana and the page cards! I was eager to buy a copy, however it had been three years since the kickstarter and I couldn’t find it for sale anywhere. I wrote to Dead on Paper to see if they were planning a reprint any time soon, and offering to buy a copy for my review if any extras were available.
It turned out they had something even better. The second edition of Arcana has just come out combining the cards from the first edition with the expansion into a single deck. It also includes several gaff cards, which are special cards printed for people who want to do card manipulation magic tricks with their deck. The fine folks at Dead on Paper offered to send me both the expansion deck and their new deck for my review! It really made my week and I’m very excited to be able to review these cards for you.
So full disclosure, I did not buy these cards. I did buy the initial deck, however I would prefer to buy all the things I review. If I’m going to recommend you spend your money on something, I want you to know that I did so as well and we’re in this together now. So to try and reclaim some objectivity here, I am going to buy and give away a copy of the second edition arcana deck. If you’d like a copy of this deck, simply leave a comment on the youtube video stating your favorite tarot card, and why. I’ll pick the one I like best and send you a brand new copy of this deck! I’m going to keep this copy, because I like them a lot.
OK! Enough blogging, let’s get to the review!
First, the production quality on this deck is top notch. Both the cards themselves and the tuckbox they come in are excellent. The cards are the correct thickness and feel good in the hand. I think these would be excellent for card tricks, especially with the included gaff cards, however I don't do a lot of those myself so you may want to search for someone with a more qualified opinion about using these cards for stage magic.
Arcana cards come in an ornate cardboard tuckbox with a blue silver-foiled interior. The side-opening tuckbox is embossed and foil stamped, the closing tab contains the phrase “As above So Below” in latin, which originates from the Emerald Tablet, a sixth century Arabic text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Esoteric references abound in this deck from the moment you pick it up. The front of the tuckbox has a series of alchemical symbols on it, prominently a squared circle representing not professional wrasslin’, but alchemy and the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone. Beneath the alchemical symbols for the four elements are an ouroboros ringing a pentagram.
I won’t be getting too deep into the more esoteric aspects of this deck during the review, since I’m pretty confident alchemy doesn’t actually work. It's a big world out there though, anything is possible. Regardless of whether you are also indifferent or are actively transmuting lead into gold while perusing this review, it's done well in this deck. Arcana doesn’t beat you over the head with its alchemical imagery the way the other decks like the Hermetic tarot or the Symbolon do. Additionally, Arcana’s art is vastly superior to either of those decks.
Once you get into the deck itself you’ll find that this is a black and white deck that uses red on the minor arcana cards in the suits of cups and coins. Ace through ten cards are abstract pips, not full scenes like you would find in most Rider Waite variants. The aces are lavishly drawn and look amazing. Chris has selected the correct correspondence for their suits. Swords are spades, clubs are wands, cups are hearts, and disks are diamonds.
The pip cards are printed to look as if they are weathered. Personally I’m not a fan of this, but I will say it’s subtle and does not detract from my enjoyment of the cards at all. The minor arcana cards include both the tarot and playing card suit symbols, and the cups and disks suits include accents in a deep red that contrasts well with the cards.
The court cards of each suit of the minor arcana and the cards of the major arcana are executed in a faux-engraving style which translates well to the small format. The court cards are expertly capture the aspects I think they should evoke. In particular the Queens of Discs and Cups are superb, and the blending of suits on them lends an interesting symbolic twist. The Queen of Hearts perfectly blends into the abysmal lassitude of the Queen of Cups. A minor criticism here are the slightly hurried-looking execution on the faces of the spades royalty, especially the Jack\Knight of Spades which is certainly the weakest illustration among the knights, and perhaps the entire deck. Keep in mind that this is only relative to the excellence of the other cards, even at its low points the art in this deck is still far better than most of the tarot decks on the market.
The choice not to fully illustrate the minor arcana is understandable. Illustrating the pip cards would more than double the amount of work required for this deck. Traditionally, tarot card decks did not have illustrations for ace through ten in the minor arcana, relying instead on abstract representations of the pips which grew more and more involved as time went on. Some modern decks continue in this tradition, however most new decks have a fully illustrated minor arcana. I certainly prefer a fully illustrated deck myself, and I suspect most others are the same. If they do a third edition of Arcana, this would be at the top of my wish list.
With the minor arcana behind us we can heedlessly plunge into the major arcana, starting with our old friend, The Fool. With a few notable exceptions, these cards are heavily based on the Rider Waite deck, however there are many subtle differences that make reading it a brand new experience. In the Arcana deck the fool’s companion does not rear to warn him of the danger just a step away. Instead the dog seems content to merely observe as his master blithely prances into the abyss.
The Magician is very dark, the ray of light that illuminates the four traditional implements is feeble. He holds the wand at a slant, rather than pointed towards the heaven, though his sinister hand is still pointed at the earth. The Papess levitates on a sliver of moon above a night sea, giving the impression of a mermaid while Boaz and Jachin have been discarded and two ordinary pillars stand in their place. Horses, not sphinxes draw The Chariot across a dry and cracked plain.
The Strength card is too serene for me, but the Wheel of Fortune has a new, exciting interpretation. The Death card is excellent, and the deck also includes a gaff card with a closer look at the grim horseman. The Devil of this deck is Baphomet. The Tower here is very dynamic with a single plummeting figure and diagonal fireballs above a tumultuous sea. One difference I noticed between the expansion and this second edition was the replacement of Trump 19, The Sun. The expansion featured the traditional child astride a horse, but here the child is replaced with an adolescent on foot, shielded from the light by the wings of a phoenix.
The trump cards which diverge from the tradition are probably my favorites of the major arcana, however keep in mind as someone who views a ton of tarot cards, I'm biased towards things that are novel to me. The Wheel of Fortune in particular takes a very heavy-handed card and gives us something new to consider, the new sun adds considerable nuance to interpretations.
In terms of things I didn't like, a few cards in the major arcana don’t hit quite as hard as I would like. Ironically Strength is probably the worst offender. To cavil further, probably the graphic choice I disagree with the most in this deck is the way the roman numbers are stroke-outlined in the major arcana. The black line looks out of place and detracts from the illustrations. I would much prefer the numbers were moved into the block for the card titles, even at the cost of shrinking some of the text. The only other regret I have with it is I wish it was available in a larger 3.75x5.5" size. I would happily pay quite a bit for a full-sized edition, maybe with thicker stock and foiled edges. Of course, that’s not what these cards were intended to be! It’s a measure of success that a project which began as a themed playing card deck is such a good tarot deck I wish it was available in full size.
This really is an amazing deck and one I'm very happy to own. Chris Ovidyenko has really spent a tremendous amount of time meticulously crafting this deck and it shows on every single card. I highly recommend it.
Also a special BONUS heads up for people reading this review here, Chris is working on a new tarot deck inspired by the arts and crafts movement. He sent over the first card from it, check it out!