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More quality playing cards from Art of Play

Art of Play is not just the home of incredible puzzles, games, and amuzements. It's also where you'll find some of the most amazing playing cards you'll have ever seen. It's run by magicians and cardists Dan and Dave Buck, who have worked hard to create a carefully curated collection of oddities and items that will be appreciated by the discerning buyer with a fine taste in games, puzzles, or playing cards.

But Art of Play not only sells playing cards, it's also the label under which the famous Buck twins produce their own brand of playing cards. Since 2013 they have been producing a growing number of high quality and creative custom decks, thereby making a valuable and important contribution to the playing card industry. So if you're after something elegant to have on hand for performing card magic or cardistry, or something that exudes sophistication on the one hand or relaxation on the other hand, Art of Play has got you covered with one of their custom decks.

In this article, I'll review ten different decks from Art of Play that recently joined the ranks of my own personal collection of playing cards.




The Messymod deck is one of the newest members of the Art of Play line-up. The unusual graphic design approach comes from the creative minds of the TRÜF design studio.

The deck's title is short for Messy Modernism, and messymod.com doubles as the design studio's own brand and online home. The style of the artwork showcased on their site matches what you see in this deck, and is created by Adam Goldberg.


Minimalism is the order of the day, and the "messymod" style is self described as follows: "We’ve taken our love of geometry, pattern, white space, Bauhaus, Miró and a little too much caffeine and mashed it all into a style we call Messy Modernism – “messymod” for short. It’s minimal, modern, graphic, quirky, stylized, grotesque, delightful and just plain weird."

The artwork itself is not messy of course, although the creative process required to generate it certainly can be. Regardless of what it took to get there, there's no doubt about the outcome, which has produced a stunning and unique deck full of curves and shapes, decorated with a simple black and white colour scheme.


The court cards have undergone a deconstruction process and been completely reimagined. The addition of red for the hearts/diamonds on the court cards adds a burst of colour which complements the otherwise minimalist black and white very well.

Wavy lines also play an important role, especially on some of the number cards. The Jokers and an ad card give extra space for our artists to wreak their creative havoc on these playing cards, and the results are spectacular.



The Balance deck is another recent addition to the Art of Play portfolio, and was a collaboration project with SDCO Partners.

Cardists and collectors with love for minimalism will appreciate this deck as well. The tuck box gives us an immediate indication of what to expect, with a very modern graphic design which makes the most of soft pastel pink colours and simple linear shapes.


These playing cards are all about boiling down the essence of a playing card, deconstructing the traditional artwork by stripping away complex designs and multiple colours, and replacing them with a monochromatic look that strikes the right balance of contemporary and stylish minimalism.

The court cards are a real highlight, but the number cards also contribute to the overal impression of minimalism, with the help of an unadorned font used for the indices. Smaller than usual custom pips are grouped together in the center of the cards in an original pattern, creating a strong sense of delicate elements framed by a larger than usual amount of white space.


In contrast to the faces, the back of the cards have borderless design where wavy patterns are a central focus. The card backs have an overall darker look that nonetheless complements the colours used for the spades and clubs. The Jokers also match the rest of the deck well, and are also borderless but employ a soft pink.

The subtle colour tones and minimalist design, combined with the thin USPCC cardstock that cardists especially appreciate, makes this deck suitable for chill cardistry. At the same time the sleek modern design remains functional, and it is practical enough to be used for card games as well.




Continuing the trend of minimalism to some extent is the Papercuts deck, at least as far as the colours are concerned, with only a muted red or a plain black to be seen.

The restrained tuck box design gives a hint of the artistic direction within, and upon close examination there is an incredible amount of detail to be discovered beneath the surface of what initially appears to be quite straight forward.


This design is the handiwork of Suzy Taylor, who created all the images by a rather unusual method that involves an incredible amount of labour: paper cutting. With the help of a tiny knife, and with careful scrutiny aided by a magnifying glass, Suzy cuts slivers of paper to produce stunning images like the ones showcased in this remarkable deck.

The card backs are in the style of a plain black sillhouette, but the simplicity of colour only serves to highlight the amazing complexity of Suzy's paper-cutting. An incredibly intricate and delightful design awaits exploration, and it's staggering to think of the precise movements of the artist's hands that were required to produce this.


The Ace of Spades is another wonderful example of this technique, and this made it an ideal choice for the cover of the tuck box. If that isn't impressive enough, just wait until you see the court cards, where the attention to detail is mind-boggling, especially in light of the intricate craftsmanship required to make this. Silhouetted characters help keep all the attention on the detailed decorations that adorn them.

Everything about this deck is delicate and detailed, including the pips and the indices. The small size of these could arguably begin to detract from their functionality, but this deck is a work of art first of all, and even the indices are humble servants to this overall purpose. Papercutting may be an old tradition, but with this deck it gains some fine modern clothes to wear, so that a new generation can appreciate and enjoy it.


Lady Moon

The Lady Moon deck won't be for everyone on account of the subject material. But from your first glimpse of the tuck box, with its elegant lines and muted colours, touched with hints of gold foil, it's evident that much love and dedication has gone into this design.


Once the deck is removed from its clothing, and the cards are laid out on the table, the bare essentials are put on display, quite literally. Despite the creative flair, little is left to the imagination, and that's because illustrator Kelly Thorn has tried to capture something of what the ad copy describes as "an expression of the divine feminine".

The number cards have a relatively standard look, although the use of the deck's unusual colour scheme ensures that even these don't go unnoticed. But it's really the court cards and Jokers where Kelly hasn't held back, and the result is that our characters end up with a somewhat erotic look that makes them somewhat less than suitable for me showing all the details here.


The creativity has been informed by new age theology, and perhaps even some astrology, at least if the artwork of the card backs is any indication.

While this deck has taken an unusual approach of being undressed for success, the art deco style and motifs are unquestionably striking, even if it's for unorthodox reasons. But regardless of your viewpoint on the artwork, there's no question that Lady Moon has a stylish and attractive good looks on the outside. As for what's underneath and inside, I'll leave you to judge for yourself whether or not this femme fatale is for you.



Golden Sunrise

Most of us have a soft spot for nostalgia, and with the Golden Sunrise deck we get a retro feel.

With artwork created by Antonio Martinez and Alba Zapata, these playing cards will bring us back to the summer of 1971, as a new day dawns on another exciting vacation.


The tuck box immediately gives us a retro vibe courtesy of the stark colour choices, and images outlined with thick black. And of course there's the Golden Sunrise Diner, which is the heart of what this deck is about.

The deck is full of images of the classic diner, including the familiar bold red and white checkerboard pattern, and everything from phonograph records, to french fries, and of course steaming coffee.


Our well dressed court card characters look like they've stepped straight out of the early 1970s, and are just the kind of people we might have met while en route to our favourite family vacation spot in that era. The two baseball players that make up the Jokers bring to mind the kinds of players we might have seen out on the diamond, or even the early baseball cards loved by collectors.

With vibrant colours, bold images, and a very retro feel, this is a deck that will appeal to anyone who appreciates a vintage look. At the same time it remains very practical and suitable for game-play courtesy of the clear and functional indices and instantly recognizable pips. Its colourful nature also makes it well suited for cardistry and a lazy summer afternoon of flourishing or comfort shuffling.


Camp Cards (Red Back)

The Camp Cards deck (Red Back) is a popular and beloved Art of Play design now reincarnated with a red colorway.

This deck is intended as a tribute to the outdoors type who has a sense of adventure, and will especially be appreciated by anyone with a love for camping and exploring.


The tuck box features a vibrant red that makes good use of a matt look and feel, and is dressed with a multitude of camping images. The presence of gold foil shows that we're unafraid to show signs of luxury despite our dangerous surroundings. One side of the box boldly proclaims the motto we're going to have to live by: "Be Brave Or Die".

Various woodland creatures inhabit the court cards, much like the animals we might encounter on an adventure in the woods. Each is complemented with the name of the court card, which prevents the otherwise simple monochrome design from looking too cheap.


The hand-drawn style is also applied to the pips and indices. Some of the pips even have the impression of being smudged with finger-prints for added realism, and to evoke a sense of roughing it in the outdoors. A simple line drawing of a tent on the card backs further confirms what this deck is all about, with added text removing any remaining doubt: "Venture Onward, Live Adventurously!".

And in case you really do decide to head to the woods with minimal supplies other than this deck, an extra card gives some survival tips about how to turn a playing card into tinder, a spoon, a straw, a bandage, a knife, a ruler, a weapon, or a marker. Inside the tuck box interior printing offers you a map to work with in the event you're ever lost in the Yosemite Valley. I doubt that anyone will take all of this too seriously, but it certainly adds additional interest and character to an an already excellent set of playing cards.




The Borderline deck has already been around for a while, but it's worth heading to the desert to bring this adventurous deck back into the spotlight.

The border between the United States and Mexico has sparked its share of controversy over the years. But this deck isn't about making war; instead it is a celebration of the place where two rich cultures come together. So let's head south across the blistering stand and head to the border, fueled by creators Traina Design, and in search of the "slick deals" and "quick draws" that the box promises.


Our encounter begins with a striking tuck box lavishly decorated with rich copper foil against a backdrop of solid dark brown. It's hard not to be impressed with this deck's first appearances, which includes an iconic longhorn car illustration, topped with a bright red custom seal.

The card backs reprise the style and colours that we've become familiar with from the tuck box, with blacks and browns combining to form a striking and memorable design. The bilingual approach to this deck is evident with the words "Good Luck" on one side of the card back, mirrored with the equivalent Mexican "Buena Suerte". Luck isn't always on our side, however, if the presents of skulls in the artwork is any indication. It's a one-way design, and close observers will notice that each half of the card incorporates images that reflect distinctives of both sides of the border.


The court cards continue the focus on the two cultures that this deck depicts, and the words and images on both sides of the cards showcase stereotypical characters of the United States and Mexico, which fittingly meet at the central border in the middle of the cards. On our trip to the border we can expect to see a colourful cast of characters that includes bikers, luchadores, Hollywood starlets, Mexican señoritas, small town sheriffs and federales.

Even the number cards contribute to the overall effect, with the value of each card appearing in both languages. The cards themselves have a dull yellowed look to them, as if they've been dug up on location. The double headed courts effectively means that with this deck you get twice the usual value, because with each card you get two illustrations for the price of one. Perhaps there's a lesson in these novelty playing cards: the place where cultures meet doesn't have to be a point of conflict, but can equally be a place where we are enriched by admiring each other's differences.


Jane Austen

I'm a big fan of playing cards that celebrate literary works, and my article "Playing cards about novels" gives an overview of some of the best of this type. The Jane Austen deck was a notable omission from the playing cards represented there, and now it's time for it to get its own share of the limelight.

Jane Austen is of course one of the biggest names in the history of English literature, and almost every English student has at some point been confronted with her work, even if it wasn't always by choice. This deck draws on the wider body of her legacy, with each suit representing a different novel, such as Pride & Prejudice (Spades) and Emma (Hearts). For those whose English literature is a little rusty, the Aces provide a convenient reminder of the four works are included.


But our first meeting with Jane Austen comes by way of the delightful tuck box, which has classic look, and evokes something of the genre that it celebrates: the novel. Its book-like design suits its content perfectly, and small touches of detail and metallic ink help add class and style.

The artwork of the card backs mirrors the intricate borders and overall graphic design we've already seen on the cover, with a combination of blues and gold setting a formal and delicate tone.


The names of the cast of lead characters that have migrated from Austen's classic works in order to inhabit this deck are conveniently emblasoned across a stylish scroll in the center of each of the court cards. The artwork used for the court cards has been illustrated by John Eric Ligon, and is inspired by period artwork, by relying on fashion plates contained in an influential British periodical from the time.

Ornate pips and the delicate font used for the indices indicate that there is no mistake about the setting, and we're in a world where everything is formal and precise. For the lover of literature, everything is just perfect.



Tom's Town

Novelty isn't always the order of the day, and occasionally you what you simply need is a more standard deck with a classic look for playing a traditional game of cards. At the same time we don't want to compromise too much of our class, and want playing cards that still have some real character and style.

The Tom's Town deck fits the bill perfectly. It offers us something stylish, and makes an immediate statement of classic luxury for the card player.


This deck has been produced as a result of a collaboration with Kansas City's Tom's Town Distilling Company, producers of fine spirits, and the cover of the tuck box even mentions their website. Despite their line of business and the slogan "The People Are Thirsty", clearly nobody was intoxicated during the process of this deck's design, because meticulous attention has been given to detail and precision in all respects.

The graphic design work is the creation of designer Kevin Cantrell, and he's successfully made the Tom's Town brand-name central in all aspects while distilling this design. The card backs use a sober mix of black and beige, while carefully illustrating buildings that undoubtedly capture something of the architecture of the distillery itself, depicted in a charming art deco style.


Gorgeous oversized Aces perform the duty of celebrating the suits they represent, as well as the beverages Tom's Town is known for. Extra details added to the number cards and the use of custom pips ensure that we have a luxurious custom look which nonetheless remains within the borders of the familiar.

I find myself particularly smitten by the classy court cards, where the use of lines and white-space emphasis the details that have been chosen to receive colour. I have to concede that the use of a beige on white does come with the risk of having the indices disappearing into the background, potentially affecting playability. But if there is a small cost to function, the overall impression that these playing cards generate is well worth it.



The Standards deck will undoubtedly become one of Art of Play's signature decks. It's inspired by 19th century British opulence, and the lavish gold on the tuck boxes gives an immediate sense of the luxury and style that this deck is all about.

The title of the deck is actually short for "gold standard", which is a reference to an era in typography, and is the subject of an art book that designer Kevin Cantrell is working on, entitled The Gold Standard of Lettering and Branding: The Case for Confidence. The deck is an offshoot of that project, and ironically there is nothing "standard" about it, given how luxurious the deck is.


These decks come in red and black first of all, conveniently making a matching set for anyone looking for a two-deck pair to use at the card table. Both decks feature an ornate graphic design on one side of the box, which exemplifies the overall detail that we'll quickly become familiar with from the card backs. The other side of the tuck box has a plain mono-coloured backdrop, which serves as an elegant setting to make the gold stamping that is the central feature look even more striking and impressive.

The use of gold throughout this deck, including on the cards themselves, gives this deck an immediately regal feel. The card backs have just the right mix of intricate detail, while maintaining the principle that there needs to be a clear and distinctive overall design. There are lots of small details to admire and enjoy in the artwork, and small touches like the swords which nudge over the white borders add an extra element of sophistication and style.


The title also doubles as a reference to the "Gold Standard" monetary system, where an economy relies on gold as a fixed standard to back its currency. The Standards decks are a satirical look at the 19th century British monarchy at the time their currency was backed by gold.

Britain adopted the Gold Standard as the national backing for its economy in 1819. But as a renowned economist has pointed out, even the gold standard can collapse, and the true foundation for an economy is the principle of confidence. To hint at the imminent demise of the Standard, the usual artwork for the classic "suicide king" (King of Hearts) is applied to all the Kings and Jacks. David Ricardo, the man who influenced the British to return to the Gold Standard, is featured as the Joker.


After seeing the Tom's Town deck, it will come as no surprise that Kevin Cantrell is also the creator of the graphic design of the Standards, becuase there is something immediately familiar about the look of the court cards here. But if the Tom's Town deck was impressive, this is even better. There's lavish use of gold throughout, with ornate details even making their way inside the pips. The indices are also clearer and more functional.

This deck has proven to be a real hit with consumers ever since it hit the market, and it's not hard to see why. Inside and out, it hits all the right notes of combining what is recognizable with the unique, and is a perfect mix of the striking and simple together with the intricate and the detailed. The colour combinations work perfectly together. The Standards will unquestionably help elevate any card game from the mundane, and this has to be one of the most beautiful decks that we've seen from Art of Play yet.


For even extra luxury, the Standards decks were initially offered as part of a special bespoke box set. This incredible box contained six leather-lined compartments, holding the promise that besides the initial decks we can expect more to come, possibly with additional colorways.

The box set placed a limited edition gold deck alongside the red edition and the black edition. The gold deck is not available for separate purchase, however, and was only available as part of the special box set.



These playing cards from Art of Play are superb examples of how Art of Play continues to set the benchmark for high quality modern playing cards in the playing card industry. Today's market is more crowded and competitive than ever, but Art of Play consistently produces fresh creations that combine innovative graphic design with striking good looks.

As with all their playing cards, these decks not only look great, but they also handle superbly. For nearly all of their decks, Art of Play has consistently been opting to print their playing cards with USPCC's crushed stock. United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) is an industry leader, and the maker of the famous Bicycle brand, and their playing cards are known for their durability and consistency in handling, courtesy of their `air cushion' style embossing and finish. The "thin crush" stock simply ensures that the cards feel somewhat softer than normal, handling beautifully straight out of the box, which is why experienced card handlers love them so much.

With these decks, the guys at the helm of the Art of Play brand, Dan and Dave Buck, continue to show that they have superb taste, and a real eye for quality. Their ever expanding catalogue continues to impress, and these playing cards are worthy ambassadors of the quality we've come to expect from Art of Play.


What to learn more?
● Art of Play: Official site
● Social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest

Direct links for items featured in this review:
● Minimalist decks: Balance, Messy Mod
● Artistic decks: Papercuts, Lady Moon
● Novelty decks: Borderline, Jane Austen
● Casual decks: Golden Sunrise, Camp Cards (Red)
● Classic decks: Tom's Town, Standards


NB: I first published this review on BoardGameGeek here.
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