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EndersGame
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10 Types of Playing Cards You Should Know About

People new to playing cards are typically familiar only with what they've seen and experienced firsthand, namely the classic Bicycle deck with standard court cards. The average person simply isn't aware of the many beautiful custom decks of playing cards that are on the market today, and how popular these are.

But as any collector will know, there is a wide range of fantastic and creative playing cards available today, and a vast array of different types of decks is being produced on a regular basis. Many of these display wonderful creativity in terms of their graphic design, with heavily customized faces and pips, card backs, and stylish tuck boxes. This variety is not a new phenomenon by any means. Already in the 15th and 16th centuries, when playing cards were first spreading rapidly throughout Europe, they were anything but "standard". The history of playing cards is a rich tapestry that includes a wide range of different styles of playing cards.

So what are some of the different types of decks that are available? In this article, we'll introduce you to some of the more common types that have been produced. It's not an exhaustive list, but is intended to serve as an introduction to some of the different types of decks that are available. The aim is to arouse your curiosity about these types, and perhaps whet your appetite to learn more about them, and explore some of the other kinds of non-standard or unique decks that you'll find in the wonderful world of playing cards.

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STANDARD DECKS

When collectors refer to a "standard deck", what they typically have in mind is a deck that has a very traditional look. Over the years the court cards have become more or less standardized, and so has the shape and style of the pips and indices. While card backs vary, and the Ace of Spades and Jokers can also be customized, the rest of a standard deck typically looks the same. Typically the faces of the cards are exactly as you'd expect to see them in a normal Bicycle style deck, aside perhaps from minor variations, such as in the colours used for the court cards.

Card gamers tend to prefer relatively standard decks like this, primarily for practical reasons. While it's fine for a deck of standard playing cards to have a classy looking tuck box that exudes sophistication and style courtesy of embossing and foil accents, the cards themselves need to be functional and immediately recognizable, in order to play games with them. A standard deck of playing cards, with clearly recognizable indices and suits, will usually serve that purpose best.

Most magicians also prefer to work with a standard deck, because they don't want their spectators being distracted by fancy artwork or hard-to-read pips and indices. Furthermore, the sleight of hand skills they have developed will often make tricks seem more impossible and miraculous if the deck of playing cards they are using looks ordinary in every respect. So despite the success of custom playing cards, we can expect standard decks to continue to be popular for card games and card magic.

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NOVELTY DECKS

A "novelty deck" is simply a different way of referring to a "custom deck". The definition of the word novelty is something new, original, or unusual. As a result, any deck that has been heavily "customized" with original or unusual elements will sometimes be described as a novelty deck.

In contrast to a standard deck, a novelty deck or custom deck will at a bare minimum have completely customized artwork for the court cards. Often the pips and indices will be stylized and customized as well. A fully custom deck is usually preferred by collectors since each and every card in the deck has a unique look that sets it apart from a standard deck.

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GAME DECKS

Some standard decks have been slightly altered to optimize them for use in playing popular card games, even though many of these card games could be played just as easily with a traditional deck of playing cards. Often this simply involves adding point values to specific cards. A classic example is Canasta, which was especially popularized in the 1950s. Canasta sets usually consist of two decks, and point-scoring cards have their values printed on them to make it easier to play the game.

The popular trick-taking game Euchre, on the other hand, doesn't employ anywhere near a complete deck. Decks of Euchre cards typically include enough cards for two games of Euchre, along with special cards that can be used for scoring during the game. Wizard is another very successful trick-taking game, and is effectively just a standard deck with slight adjustments to incorporate custom Wizard and Jester cards. The classic card game Pinochle, on the other hand, requires a custom deck because it consists of two copies of the 9s through Aces in each suit, thus creating a 48 card deck. These are also sold separately, but strictly speaking it is no longer a traditional deck given the unusual composition of cards.

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GAFF DECKS

Just like there are decks for gamers, so too there are decks for magicians. Most custom decks nowadays will come with some "gaff cards", so collectors will usually be accustomed to getting a modern deck of playing cards that comes with a double backer or blank card. These cards are used by magicians for card magic, and are typically included because USPCC offers a 56 card deck as a standard when printing, meaning that there's two additional cards besides the Jokers and the deck itself. While these can be used as ad cards, using these extra cards to include gaff cards increases the likelihood of a particular deck having appeal to magicians, and so creators will often choose that option.

A gaff deck, however, is when an entire deck consists of gaffed cards, also sometimes referred to as gimmicked cards. Sometimes these will just consist of a deck with individual gaff cards that are intended to be used separately, like a double backer or blank card. But there are also some special decks created purely as "trick decks", and these enable you to accomplish things that you couldn't achieve with a regular deck. Highly specialized gaff decks are occasionally created for a single magic routine, but there are also some very common gaff decks that are widely known and readily available. These are often sold to the general public by pitchmen at fairs and markets, such as the Svengali deck and Stripper deck.

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MARKED DECKS

Another handy tool for the magician is the marked deck. Don't expect me to reveal everything here, because some performers use these as part of their livelihood! Let me first say, however, that while it is true that magicians and mentalists will occasionally use marked decks, the bulk of card tricks you'll see performed are accomplished with a completely regular deck, by sheer skill and sleight of hand.

But occasionally a magician will rely on a marked deck, which is where the playing cards have secret marks on the back of each card, enabling them to identify the value and suit of the card in question. There are two main systems used by marked decks. Marked decks with reader systems actually have the name of the card written somewhere on the back - usually just with a number and letter that indicates its value and suit - carefully camouflaged into the artwork. Marked decks with coded systems indicate the value and suit of the cards using shapes or some other visual clue that needs to be decoded from the card back.

Marked decks do have an Achilles heel, because they can usually be identified by "taking the deck to the movies", or giving it a "riffle test", which involves using your thumb to quickly flip through the entire deck, in the process watching the backs closely to see if there is any movement or change in the back design. Marked decks certainly shouldn't be used for cheating in a card games or gambling, and are strictly to be used for performing magic type routines.

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VINTAGE DECKS

Serious collectors will usually be careful to distinguish the term "vintage" from "antique". While "antique" technically refers to something that is more than a hundred years old, the word "vintage" is more flexible, and can refer to anything from an earlier generation or time.

A vintage deck, then, is a deck that hails from a previous era. Vintage decks from before World War II that are in good condition are often quite rare, because playing cards are a commodity that was created to be used rather than preserved, and most playing cards from that era have long since been thrown away, or if they do surface, are very well used. As a result, the market for vintage and antique decks typically brings prices into a much higher bracket, considerably more than what the average playing card enthusiast is prepared to pay.

However just because a deck has vintage look doesn't necessarily mean it has to be old. There are some delightful and eye-catching decks that look very tired and old, even though they are in fact made of high quality playing cards that are brand new. This can be achieved by using a graphic design which gives the cards a vintage or a deliberately distressed look. Sometimes these are actual replicas of a classic deck from the past, while other times they have artificially been given a vintage look using artistic license to create something that merely has the appearance of age. Either way, many of these modern decks can be described as "vintage decks", and look like they have arrived into the present straight from the distant past, while still being quality products that feel great and perform well.

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REPRODUCTION DECKS

With the availability of technology that enables us to quite readily reproduce decks from yesteryear, a whole category of playing cards has sprung up that is devoted to producing reproductions of historically significant or rare decks from the past. This is not a new development, since historically important and attractive decks like the J.G. Cotta transformation decks have seen several reproductions of the original since it first appeared more than two centuries ago. But today's technology certainly makes it easier to accomplish this, with the help of digital scans and digital art. And with the advent of crowdfunding and the internet, there are now more ways than ever before for collectors to find out about these projects and to support them.

One of the publishers leading the way here is Home Run Games, who have produced some delightful and authentic reproductions of some of the very first playing cards produced in America. These include iconic and notable decks like Hart's Saladee's Patent (1864), Triplicate No. 18 (1876), Mauger Centennial (1876), Murphy Varnish (1883), and Tally-Ho No. 9 (1885). All of these reproduction decks were produced by USPCC in high quality editions with a modern air cushion finish, so they handle beautifully and look great.

PlayingCardDecks has also been at the forefront of this development, and has brought some wonderful reproduction decks to the market in recent years. These include Eclipse Comic (1876), Faro Vintage (1887), Vanity Fair (1895), Hustling Joe (1895), Ye Witches Fortune Telling (1896), Circus Reproduction (1896), and most recently the J.G. Cotta decks (1805).

Another contributor in this area is publisher US Games Systems Inc, and they have produced some lovely reproduction decks, although not with the same quality. I particularly like their Airline Spotter and Naval Spotter decks, and some of their other reproduction decks are well worth looking at as well, e.g. Samuel Hart's 1858 deck, Cohen's 1863 Patent National deck, and Cohen's 1864 Highlanders deck.

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FARO DECKS

Faro decks are a particular kind of Vintage deck, and have come to refer a particular style of deck, namely one with no indices. The name may be familiar from the Faro Shuffle, which is quite well known among playing card enthusiasts and cardists. That is a technically difficult move where you place the two halves of a deck into each other, card by card, and weave them together like a zipper. The name however, has its origin in a 19th century gambling game, which first appeared in France, and became extremely popular throughout Europe. From there it migrated to the United States, and quickly became the gambling game of choice in American casinos until it was eclipsed by Poker in the 1950s.

Gambling decks from this era typically had one-way court cards that occupied the full face of the card, and had no indices. Indices only became standard on playing cards as a result of American innovation in the mid 19th century, and prior to this point, playing cards simply consisted of the pips and courts. Given the popularity of the game of Faro in the pre-index era, playing cards without indices have come to be described as a Faro deck, because they epitomize the look of the gambling decks from the Wild West when Faro was the game of choice. Today, the term "Faro deck" is an indication of the style of playing cards from this period, and can be used to describe any deck that has playing cards without indices.

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TRANSFORMATION DECKS

Now we come to one of my all-time favourite types of playing cards: transformation decks. These are playing cards where the pips have been incorporated creatively and artistically into a larger image. So for example, the pips on a Six of Clubs might be transformed into the leaves of a tree, and the pips on a Two of Hearts might be transformed into two swans, with the tree and swans perhaps being part of larger pictures that occupy most of the space on the card faces.

A conventional transformation playing card retains the original location and shape of the pips, while a semi-transformation deck gives the artist more freedom to work with, because the pips can be altered and moved however the artist wants. A fine modern example of a semi-transformation deck is the Ultimate deck produced by Art of Play. It's not hard to see that this type of artwork brings with it a real limitation on the part of the artist. At the same time it gives scope for tremendous creativity, since there is the challenge of producing something that is innovative and attractive, while operating within the constraints of the genre, and it is this creativity that makes them so attractive and popular.

Transformation playing cards first started appearing at the turn of the 19th century, with the famous J.G. Cotta transformation decks being the very first complete decks of transformation playing cards that were published. This led to a period of real fascination with transformation decks, and some delightful decks were produced in this style towards the end of the 19th century, and again towards the end of the 20th century. In our modern crowd-funding era there has been a renewed appreciation for this type of playing cards. Some classic transformation decks have been reprinted in fine reproduction editions, while new transformation decks created by original designers have also hit the market and been well received.

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REGIONAL DECKS

Playing cards aren't the same the world over, not just in terms of the designs, but also in terms of the composition of the deck. Most of us are used to a standard Bicycle deck of playing cards which consists of 52 cards, plus two Jokers. But this is the result of centuries of development, and even the "traditional" artwork as we know is the result of a long period of evolution. Even the Joker is only a very late American addition. When playing cards first arrived in Western Europe in the late 14th century, and first spread throughout Europe, there was considerable diversity in the names and styles of the suits, and even the number of cards in a deck.

The suits used in Italian and Spanish cards were cups, coins, swords, and clubs, and Spanish court cards consisted of a king, knight, and knave, with no queens. German decks adopted more rural flavour, with acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells used as the suits, while in Switzerland the leaves were replaced with flowers and the hearts with shields. A 52 card deck with the four suits of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs only became dominant after the French developed techniques to produce playing cards more rapidly and cheaply than other parts of Europe, and it was their success in production that saw their form of the deck monopolize Europe.

But regional decks still persist in parts of Europe, and many of them trace their roots back to earlier centuries. Such decks aren't likely to disappear quickly, because they are closely linked to a particular cultural heritage, and also to regional card games that remain incredibly popular in these parts of the world. Many of these decks also consist of smaller numbers of cards, such as a 40 card deck or a 32 card deck. European publisher Piatnik still publishes many of these regional decks in large numbers for the European market, and they often have incredibly vibrant and beautiful artwork. One of my favourites is the Tell deck, which depicts characters from the story of William Tell.

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These ten types of decks of playing cards don't exhaust all that there is just yet. In a follow-up article I'll cover ten more different types of decks, including several types of novelty decks.

Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
EndersGame
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10 More Types of Playing Cards You Should Know About

In my previous article I introduced you to ten different types of decks of playing cards. That doesn't exhaust the types of decks, and so to follow up, here are another ten different types of decks you should know about!

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SOUVENIR DECKS

A souvenir deck is a deck of playing cards created in order to serve as a souvenir for tourists or visitors. Typically such playing cards have scenes from different locations, and depict things like notable landmarks, buildings, wildlife, flora, or other unique elements about the place in question. In many cases the card backs will have an image or text that captures something of the overall locale. Each card will then have a different photo or image that occupies most of the space on the card in the area where you would normally find the main images for the court cards and pips. Indices on opposite corners that indicate the suit and value of each card ensure that it can still serve as a playable deck of cards. Effectively such a deck of playing cards serves as a miniature photo album, capturing key images of a place, so it's an ideal product for tourists to purchase in a souvenir shop.

Souvenir decks need not necessarily be about a particular country or city, but could even be created for an attraction like a Zoo or theme park, and even for a notable event. They are primarily created for the visual images on the cards, rather than for intensive use in playing card games. As a result, they tend to be made very cheaply, with thin card-stock that performs poorly for handling and shuffling. But they do make great novelty items, and achieve the purpose for which they were created, which is as an item of memorabilia. At the same time they have some practical function, and enable you to play card games while you're on vacation if you really want to.

While not strictly souvenir decks, many of the decks produced by US Game Systems Inc and Piatnik almost qualify for this category. Their novelty decks don't come close to matching the quality of a Bicycle deck, but they are quite inexpensive, and contain many delightful images and pictures that are the center-piece of the individual cards, which are the real attraction and reason for buying these decks.

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ADVERTISING DECKS

It didn't take playing card manufacturers long to realize the potential to use playing cards as a means of advertising. In a way much like souvenir cards, playing cards are ideal for companies to use to market their business or products. Advertising decks have been around for a long time, and there are some wonderful examples of 19th century decks. My favourite one is the Murphy Varnish deck, which features transformation cards, and wonderful court cards that depict and promote Murphy's Vanish.

Many advertising decks are created on a budget, since the goal is about marketing a product or a brand, rather than producing a quality deck of playing cards that will be durable or visually exceptional. But there are many famous brands that have devoted fans, that makes advertising decks featuring these companies or products immediately attractive to collectors who collect memorabilia associated with that company or product. For example, a deck of playing cards that pays homage to Coca Cola won't only appeal to playing card enthusiasts, but will have a crossover appeal to anyone who collects Coca Cola paraphernalia. Decks that feature brands of beer and whisky are popular for similar reasons. As a result you'll find playing cards that advertise popular alcoholic drinks like Jack Daniels, as well as famous makes of motorbikes and motor-vehicles, like Harley Davidson and Ford.

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LICENCED DECKS

Closely related to the category of advertising decks are playing cards that pay tribute to popular movies, TV shows, books, music, or other icons in popular culture. These are extremely collectible, due to their immediate appeal for anyone who is a fan of the cultural icon in question. But to make them, creators of playing cards often need to pay a licensing fee to the owner of the "brand" or intellectual property that appears on the cards, and hence the unofficial designation "licenced decks". They could equally be considered "fan decks".

Examples of these include playing cards that pay tribute to films like Jaws, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings; TV shows like Saturday Night Live; comic strips like Peanuts, Spider Man, and Marvel's Avengers; and characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck from Disney. Some of these are created as pure novelty decks, and the artwork is such that they could never even be used for card games.

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CARDISTRY DECKS

Card flourishing is not something new, and magicians have long incorporated flourishes within their acts. However in the last decade cardistry has really developed an independent existence alongside and separate from card magic, and is rapidly cementing its legitimacy as an art-form in its own right. Cardistry can loosely be described as the performance art of card juggling, and typically involves someone doing visually impressive cuts, twirls, spins, and more with a deck of cards. Social media and the ability to share videos online have really helped cardistry grow rapidly, and it's especially being embraced by a younger generation.

But cardistry has also spawned a new type of deck, created especially for cardistry. Given that it is all about visuals, card flourishing will benefit the most when the deck used is colourful and has striking patterns that enhance the visual aesthetics of the flourishes themselves. This led to the creation of decks that were optimized and designed specifically for the purposes cardistry. Singapore-based cardistry group The Virts was at the forefront of this development, with the creation of their Virtuoso deck, which became a popular and highly sought after series.

The success of the cardistry movement meant that playing cards did not have to be functional for playing games or card magic, and that there was a ready market prepared to drop money to buy decks that were simply about visual aesthetics. Some cardistry decks can serve a dual purpose of being used for games or magic, but the primary goal of a cardistry deck is the visual appeal. Typically a cardistry deck demands the very highest standard in terms of quality and performance, and features a design and pattern that looks great when the cards are being handled. Some cardistry decks abandon pips and indices altogether, and there are even cardistry decks where every card is identical on both the front and back.

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THROWING DECKS

Also deserving separate mention are decks intended specifically for card throwing. Card throwing has received significant media attention as a result of the impressive feats of Rick Smith Jr, who has been featured in some remarkable viral videos from Dude Perfect, and who holds several world records for throwing playing cards the fastest and furthest. While any deck can be used for card throwing, there are custom decks that have been created specifically with the idea of enhancing this unique use of playing cards.

In some cases, the intended goal of a dedicated throwing deck is all about creating a visual effect when the cards are rotating and in motion. Rick Smith Jr's Falcon Throwing Cards have been designed with exactly this kind of aesthetic in mind, and even incorporate a special marking system in the artwork to help measure how deep the cards go when thrown into objects like foam or fruit. Besides this, they are a relatively standard deck of playing cards in terms of the quality and feel, although a thicker than normal card-stock has been adopted in view of their intended use.

Some of the Banshee decks also include a measuring system on the card faces, but also have bevelled edges geared to maximize their ability to penetrate objects. Perhaps best of all, they incorporate custom holes uniquely designed to produce a sonic scream when the cards whiz through the air.

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ANIMATION DECKS

In a unique category of their own are decks designed specifically to be animated. Typically this involves using a flip-book animation technique. The method used to do this is sometimes described as "taking a deck to the movies". The idea is that you use your thumb to flip through all the cards rapidly, thereby creating the illusion of a moving image.

The Bicycle Cinema Playing Cards are one example of such an animation deck. It has cards that look like a film strip, with a classic yellowed finish for a nostalgic and old time look. When flipping through the cards, an animation feature creates the 3-2-1 count-down that old movies would have, while the film strip sides also appear to move vertically. The Mechanic deck uses a similar technique to create the impression of moving cogs, while the Optricks deck is designed to create a mesmerizing hypnotic effect with moving lines. Also belonging in this category are the Clockwork decks.

Those interested in card magic will also love Dan Harlan's Card Toon deck, which is a gaff deck featuring an animated stick man, and which uses this principle to reveal a selected card in an amusing manner.

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LIMITED EDITION DECKS

Not every deck of playing cards is intended to be used for playing card games, or for card magic or cardistry. There many collectors who enjoy the hobby of collecting out of sheer love for the variety and novelty of the playing cards themselves. Particularly in the crowdfunding era, many creators have emerged and cemented themselves with a solid reputation as designers whose goal is to create highly collectible playing cards, some of which are produced in limited editions to make them even more exclusive. In some cases, these can be in high demand in the secondary market, and over time can be highly sought after by collectors.

These limited edition decks often have extra touches that make them appealing to the card collector, with an individually numbered tuck seal being a key element of this. Such tuck seals will often indicate the size of the print run, and give each deck an individual number, e.g. 578/1000. Limited edition decks often have lavish tuck boxes, or have other intriguing features about them to help make them unique and interesting. They tend to be produced by well-known designers with an existing reputation of creativity and success, but even new creators will sometimes produce a limited edition version of a project, in order to appeal to the collector looking for something especially classy or unique.

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GILDED DECKS

Once in a while what you're looking for is something absurdly expensive and over-the-top. There are lots of ways to add bling to a deck of playing cards, including gold foil and embossing on the tuck box, or else flashes of iridescence or UV spot printing on the cards, all delivered in an exotic looking tuck case. But perhaps there is no other feature in a deck of playing cards that screams "luxury" as much as gilded edges.

Traditionally, gilding was accomplished by hand, with master craftsman literally painting the edges of the cards with gold or silver paint. Sometimes this manual process is still used to create a gilded deck, although technology has opened up other ways of accomplishing this. But there's no doubt that the end result looks absolutely fantastic! Gold and silver are the two most popular colours of choice for gilding, but modern gilding methods allow for a range of different colours to be used, so you'll find gilded decks of all styles and colours.

Often a gilded deck will arrive with the cards still stuck together, because the gilding is still intact. That's perfectly normal, and you need to carefully separate the cards individually before using them. Regular use will cause gilding to wear, so you can't expect a gilded deck to retain its shiny look forever. However, even after lots of shuffling and handling, you will still be able to recognize that a deck was gilded, and distinguish it from a non-gilded deck. Primarily intended for collectors, a gilded deck certainly adds an impressive amount of bling to your deck, but naturally this also means that it comes at a much higher cost.

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TAROT DECKS

Tarot decks deserve a separate category, and are often misunderstood. To begin with, the key difference that distinguishes a Tarot deck from a standard deck of playing cards is that it has 26 extra cards. Each suit has four court cards instead of three, and there are also 22 additional cards, usually described as Major Arcana. These extra cards are the simple explanation that lies behind the emergence of the Tarot deck, since it simply came about as a way of increasing the complexity of card games by including extra trump cards.

The origin of the Tarot deck is often the subject of controversy, with some people believing that Tarot cards had roots in the occult and that they were linked to ancient secret societies that disseminated esoteric knowledge. According to this view, Tarot decks were the original form of playing cards, from which the standard deck developed. But after the publication of The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City (1980) by respected academic Michael Dummett, there is a growing consensus that there is no evidence of Tarot decks being used for fortune-telling and the occult until the 18th century, while standard playing cards already appeared in Europe in the 14th century. The "Major Arcana" was first added to the traditional deck already in the 15th century, long before any occultic use, and it served as a fixed trump suit in trick taking games. That's how Tarot decks were used for several centuries, until they cartomancers became infatuated with them around the 18th century, causing them to develop a life of their own for fortune telling, and taking their artwork in a new direction.

Regardless of the history, the number of cards in a Tarot deck is quite firmly established, and today it is clearly distinguished from a regular deck. It typically comes with highly attractive and visual artwork, often reflecting occultic themes linked to fortune-telling. Regardless of your position about their history, development, and function, it's not hard to see how Tarot cards are very collectible, in view of their distinct characteristics and visual appeal.

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ORACLE DECKS

Unlike traditional decks, and Tarot decks, Oracle cards don't have a set number of cards or fixed structure. A deck of Oracle cards could consist of anything from 12 to 100 cards, for example. There are no real rules about what cards a deck might contain, other than that the cards are spiritual in nature. Besides that, an oracle deck can be anything that its creator wants to make it consist of, both in terms of the number of cards, and which ones. The Lenormand decks are good example of this kind of fortune-telling deck.

While the Tarot deck can be used for card games, Oracle cards are strictly used for fortune-telling. The expression "fortune-telling cards" need not refer exclusively to Oracle decks, however. The practice of fortune telling using a deck of cards is referred to as cartomancy, and the most popular deck used by cartomancers today is the Tarot deck. Sometimes even a traditional deck of 52 playing cards can be used for fortune telling and divination. There are also decks of standard cards that are particularly created with a view to cartomancy, such as the Ye Witches Fortune Cards (1896), Kadar Fortune Playing Cards, and Cartomancer Fortune deck.

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Well, there you have it, an introduction to some of the diverse types of decks that you'll find on the market today. There is indeed a tremendous amount of diversity, so the modern playing card collector has plenty of choice for different types of decks to enjoy.

Happy collecting!

Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
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