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EndersGame
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INTRODUCTION

Over the last year I've been giving detailed attention to the best and most popular marked decks preferred by magicians for card magic, and writing a series of articles on the subject. There's a lot of custom decks appearing on Kickstarter and the playing card market that are marked decks, but in most cases these are more about novelty than practicality, especially if they use coded systems. The ideal marked deck is a reader deck that is quick and easy to use, and looks like a normal Bicycle deck. These were the top candidates identified and recommended so far:

Basic reader decks:
2005 - Boris Wild Marked Deck ($20) by Boris Wild (Maiden Back)
2005 - Ultimate Marked Deck ($40) by Magic Dream (Rider Back)
2011 - GT SpeedReader ($14) by Garrett Thomas (Mandolin Back)
2017 - Marked Cards ($10) by Penguin Magic (Maiden Back)

Advanced reader decks: (with a stack)
2008 - Gambler's Marked Deck ($33) by Boris Wild & Geno Munari (Maiden Back)
2013 - The Code ($30) by Andy Nyman (Maiden Back)
2017 - Marksman Deck ($35) by Luke Jermay (Mandolin Back)

Recommended decks that aren't factory-printed Bicycles:

But now let's take a look at a few great marked decks that break the rules, and don't meet all our requirements and criteria. Once we remove the requirement for a standard Bicycle Rider Back, or its Maiden Back and Mandolin Back siblings, the choices for marked decks really open up enormously. Most of these aren't practical for card magic, but there are a couple of notable exceptions that do deserve special mention because of the unique elements they bring to the table.

Specifically the two innovative marked decks that I'm talking about and highly recommend are:
2015 - DMC Elites ($20) by DMC & Phill Smith
2017 - Butterfly Playing Cards ($30) by Ondrej Psenicka

After covering these, to wrap things up I'll briefly mention some other options in the way of reputable marked decks, and point you to some resources that will teach you how to turn your own deck into a marked deck.

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DMC ELITES by DMC & Phill Smith

Creator: Drummond Money-Coutts & Phill Smith
First released: 2015
Price: $20

The DMC Elites first appeared in 2015 and have gone through several different versions. Shown here is one of the latest incarnations of this popular marked deck, namely the Red V5. The name DMC represents the initials of English magician Drummond Money-Coutts, who combined forces with magic creator Phill Smith to produce these decks.

Description

The DMC Elites aren't Bicycle branded, but use an ingenious marking system on the card backs that works completely differently from any marked deck you've ever seen before. You can literally read these marks from across a room. Yes, really. That's why they are the marked deck of choice for many magicians, and why they deserve special mention here. It's billed as an "optical system" and the way it works is that you actually can't see the markings if they're right under your nose, but only from a distance away - but only if you know how to look at them. Once you know the system, you can't unsee the marks, which will be as plain as daylight to you.

The faces of the cards are effectively all standard, although Bicycle's trademarked Ace of Spades and Jokers have been replaced with custom ones. But for all intents and purposes, when looking at the faces, your spectators will see a completely normal deck. The card backs on the other hand don't look anything like a Bicycle deck. But that's because what this deck brings to the table is a very unique marking system, where the markings are huge, and yet are hidden in plain sight.

It's worth mentioning that the DMC Elites have also gone through several different versions, and continue to benefit from slight improvements each time. For example, the markings were originally just in two corners, whereas the newer versions now have them on four corners. New with the V5 deck is the fact that it comes in the Mnemonica stack, and for the first time it also includes the location of each card in the stack on the card backs. Different versions of the DMC Elites have used different printers, including some that have been produced by USPCC, the printer that makes Bicycle decks. Overall it can be said that even though these playing cards aren't Bicycle branded, they do have the high quality that buyers require for reliable handling.

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Impressions

The creators describe the unorthodox style of the markings as an "optical system". It is so plain to read that it can easily be read from across a table, and even from several meters away. One of the problems with many other marked decks is that the small print used for the markings makes them hard to read, and this requires you to squint or stare at the cards at length to figure out the marking. The opposite is true with this clever deck. To the untrained observer, it's completely invisible and undetectable, but once you learn the secret to the markings, you will be able to tell the identity of every card in an instant, even from a distance.

The DMC Elites have made a huge splash in the magic industry for exactly this reason, and received high praise from all sides. Many consider them to be the best in the business, and the ease of reading the markings combined with their devious disguise has made them very popular. You can safely hand these to a spectator to examine, and even to many magicians, and they won't be able to find a thing. Yet you'll be able to read them from halfway across the room. It sounds impossible and hard to believe, but it's very clever, and it is genuinely as good as it sounds - which is why these marked cards have been so successful.

Teaching materials

The DMC Elites decks originally didn't come with any video tutorials or routines, although a mini-book entitled Passport to Marked Decks was available separately. It has a delightful graphic design that makes it look like a passport. Aside from explaining how the marking system works and the theory behind it, the booklet covers nine different routines you can do with a marked deck. The presentational ideas are especially good, and it's obvious that these have been produced by a working performer with experience in the game. Now that the DMC Elites have been out for a while, the creators have decided to release this booklet for free as a digital PDF download at their official website.

From the same site you can also download three other PDF files which were previously released as "passports" in a similar way. Passports to Elites V5 is a 28 page booklet that introduces the basic concept of Mnemonica, since the newest versions of the DMC Elites also include markings for this popular stack. This booklet teaches five solid effects, and also has "toolkit" sections that teach you other important skills relevant to using a marked deck with a stack, such as a false shuffle, a deck switch, and card controls.

The other two PDF files are specifically tailored to extra items available in the DMC Elites line, namely the Elites Pro Gaffs and the Alphas deck. The routines included for these are terrific, but you will need these special decks in order to perform the material contained here.

Recommendation

For many magicians, the fact that the DMC Elites don't have a standard Bicycle look on the card backs is more than outweighed by this ingenious and easy-to-use marking system. Even many Bicycle diehards have switched to using the DMC Elites as their favourite marked deck, given their ease of use and their practical look. Especially now that the Passports are available as free PDF downloads, these outstanding marked decks are well-supported with teaching materials for strong routines that performing magicians will love.

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BUTTERFLY PLAYING CARDS by Ondrej Psenicka

Creator: Butterfly Playing Cards
First released: 2017
Price: $30

The Butterfly Playing Cards from Czech magician Ondrej Psenick also deserve special mention. To use them, we do have to abandon our requirement of a reader system, because this marked deck uses a coded system, relying on marks you have to decipher to figure out the suit and the value of each card. But it is so innovative and so powerful, and has been so well received by magicians, that it would be a serious omission not to include it here.

Description

The shining achievement of this remarkable deck is that it uses a marking system that even trained magicians won't easily detect. Yet courtesy of the built-in edge marking system, you can read a card without even spreading the deck. Strictly speaking, the marks aren't on the sides of the cards, but on the card backs very close to the edges. This ingenious system builds on work by Jeff Busby, and lets you read the value and suit of every single card in the deck simply by bevelling the deck slightly, and looking at the side of the deck.

It has two main marking systems. The "two-way" marking system is on both long edges, and works by enabling you first to identify the value (1 of 13 possibilities, based on where the mark is along the edge), and then the suit (1 of 4 possibilities, using dots). Given how clever the system is, it is remarkable how quickly you can find and cut to any named card. The "one-way" system is implemented only one a single long edge, and uses a slightly different system for identifying the value and suit. It can be used to determine the location and identity of a reversed card, and is so amazing that it's hard to believe, but is genuinely that brilliant.

The Butterfly deck was originally available in blue backs as well as red backs. Ongoing demand led to it being reprinted in a second version in 2017 that employed the same colours, and added a third marking system. Produced alongside this second edition were a limited number of unmarked versions. All the unmarked versions of Butterfly Playing Cards cleverly have tuck boxes without embossing so they can easily be distinguished by touch in a pocket. A new edition released in 2020 features a completely different colour scheme that relies on a jet black look. This version of this ground-breaking deck comes in one of three gilded versions: Black and Gold, Black and Silver, or Black and White. Now the gorgeous deck was not only printed as a marked deck, but a matching unmarked version was also made more widely available, so that the beautiful design could also be enjoyed for card games and poker.

Unlike all the other marked decks considered so far, almost all the Butterfly decks are produced by Cartamundi instead of USPCC. This means that the cards have a different texture and will handle differently than what you are used to. Cartamundi's card-stock is very popular, and it is high quality, but do expect to notice a different feel from the outset. The cards will feel softer and more flexible than a standard Bicycle deck, but they are supple, pleasant, and consistent to work with. While the original Butterfly decks use Cartamundi's thicker Superlux stock, their newest V3 decks released in 2021 use Cartamundi's thinner Slimline stock, as do the decks from the Black series. The V3 decks are also available at a lower cost as refills (i.e. without the video tutorials), to make a regular supply for returning customers more affordable.

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Impressions

In terms of looks, these decks are all about style and sophistication. The card backs in particular look wonderful, and feature a stunningly beautiful design, which showcases a lush floral pattern that goes all the way to the edge of the cards. Twin butterflies created by negative space are the centrepiece of the borderless back design, which looks especially impressive in fans and spreads. The presentation of the new black editions are amazing in every respect, especially the use of gilding and lavish foil, which begins with the tuck box. And yet despite all the luxury in looks, the court cards and number cards have a standard look, to ensure that this deck remains functional and practical for the magician.

But the real star of the Butterfly Playing Cards is the marking system built into the deck. While the idea of an edge marking system isn't new, and goes back to the work of DeLand and others (his 1915 Wonder Deck may well have been the first factory-printed edge marked deck), it is quite rare to see in a modern marked deck that is as popular, as beautiful, and as effective as this one. Having both a two-way marking system and one-way marking system gives you dual options at your fingertips. And you can use both marking systems to do things that no other marked deck will enable you to do.

With the deck you also get almost an hour of detailed online video tutorials that explain the markings, and teach you what you can do with the deck, so you'll quickly get some sense of the miracles that can be performed with it. Although the Butterfly decks were just as much of a visual triumph as a technical one, for magicians, their real appeal lies not in their glamour, but the strength of the innovative marking system, and the amazing tricks you can use it for.

Teaching materials

The online tutorial video you get access to upon purchasing the second edition of deck runs for an impressive 53 minutes. Literally only ten minutes of that is taken up with explaining how to read both marking systems - which gives you an idea of the ease in which this system can be understood. Obviously it will take some practice to read cards quickly, but it is surprisingly intuitive and logical, and much easier to learn than I ever imagined. While it is a system that can take some time to master, the ability to find a card just by looking at the side of the deck is truly remarkable, and you can do real miracles once you have this down. This clever marking system opens the door for completely new ideas that are simply impossible with any other marked deck.

The majority of the instructional video covers six different tricks you can do with the deck, and while they are somewhat bare bones in terms of presentation, the methods and effects are incredible. The basic effect with the two-way system lets you cut to any card called for, which Ondrej presents as a memory feat. The basic effect with the one-way system ("Impossible Divination") involves you looking away while the spectator makes a selection from a shuffled deck, returns it and shuffles it into the deck, and then you reveal the identity card just by glimpsing the deck. "Butterfly Clocking" showcases the ability of the deck to enable you to quickly identify and name a single card removed from the deck.

The remaining effects are basically variations on these ideas, e.g. besides naming a missing card, you can also name the exact locations of the other three cards in the deck corresponding to its value - again just by looking at the deck. Ondrej also teaches you how to sort the deck into the correct orientation for the one-way markings on the fly by means of a trick geared for that purpose.

At the start of the video tutorial, Ondrej promises to provide many tips about holding and handling cards, how to cover the glimpse, and other subtleties to help make performing with the deck more magical in presentation, and not make it obvious it is marked deck. He's as good as his word, and the video includes exactly these kinds of handling touches. The production quality of the video is also very high.

But it gets better. With the third edition of the deck, Ondrej completely reshot the instructional tutorial, with even more effects and ideas. I won't detail all of them here, except to say that instead of an hour long video, you now get a two hour long video, with even more terrific content. It's an outstanding resource, and a wonderful teaching companion that is guaranteed to help you get the most out of this incredible deck. It also shows how dedicated Ondrej is in supporting his product, and that he's continuing to provide materials that make an already terrific concept even better.

Recommendation

Both the attractive good looks and the clever marking system of the Butterfly Playing Cards have earned it high praise from magicians and playing card enthusiasts alike. What this deck can do is quite mind-blowing, and it's genuinely just as good as it sounds. Ondrej successfully used the Butterfly deck to fool Penn and Teller on their Fool Us show, which further cemented this remarkable deck's positive reputation.

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OTHER OPTIONS

Phoenix backs

Certainly there are plenty of other marked deck options besides the ones covered so far, so what follows isn't even an attempt to list them all. But there are a few other popular ones you will find recommended from time to time when the subject of marked decks comes up.

The Phoenix Marked Deck from Card Shark represents a brand specifically created for magicians as an alternative to Bicycle decks. It was first created as a marked deck, and later their range was broadened to a wider variety of decks using the Phoenix back design, including non-marked decks and gaff decks. As part of their range they offer a practical marked reader deck that uses their distinctive card back, which makes this a good choice for those who are partial to the Phoenix design. The latest version of this comes with the creator Card-Shark's online DVD "Release the Power", which includes detailed explanations and several tricks. A Phoenix Edition of the Boris Wild Marked Deck is also available.

Also using the Phoenix back design is the impressive Phoenix SUM Deck, which was originally created already in 1988 using a different back design. The acronym SUM stands for Set Up Marked, and refers to the fact that this deck is a tool that combines markings with a stack. It brings the idea behind DeLand's Automatic Deck to the modern age, much like other specialized marked decks such as the Marksman Deck and The Code. As such it includes additional information based on the Mnemonica stack, such as the identity of the adjacent card, the number of cards above the cut, and more.

Another deck worth mentioning is the Daredevil deck from Henry Evans, which also uses Phoenix backs, and is remarkable for having arguably the largest openly readable marks ever produced. The name certainly checks out, but it does make this perfect for using in parlour or stage settings.

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Reader systems

Several of the bigger playing card publishing houses have produced their own reader decks. Ellusionist offers their Red Keeper deck and their Cohort deck, which are both printed by Cartamundi. The Cohort back design has a relatively standard look, but the marks are a bit on the small side.

From Vanishing Inc comes the delightful Dapper deck, which is quite practical and pleasant to read, but has a fashionable look that won't suit everyone. The first version of these was printed by EPCC, while the newest printing is by USPCC.

Coded systems

The number of coded decks is too great to mention, although the Automatic Deck that Theodore DeLand developed in 1913 is noteworthy for historical reasons, and continues to be printed today. It combines a clever coded marking system with a stacked deck, and is also a stripper deck. DeLand's Daisy and Nifty Decks from 1919 also combine a marking system with a stack; a gorgeous Centennial Edition which recreates the originals along with extra new features was recently produced, and is also available as a collector's set.

Of the many modern decks with coded systems, the Mint deck is very popular, largely because it was created by Asad Chaudhry from the popular youtube channel 52Kards. For a large range of the many different marked decks on the market, check this list.

Jeff Kellogg's Brooklyn Playing Cards (2017) is noteworthy for being one of the first decks to use a printed juice system, and can even be read from large distances away or in low light. To my knowledge this concept of using shaded printing techniques was only ever done before by LPCC's Sharps (2013), which uses a marking system inspired by David Blaine's clever White Lions.

Many coded decks simply aren't practical enough for magicians to use, since they require you to be too engaged in deciphering the marking system while performing. That's why most professional magicians typically prefer to use reader decks. And you can do so quite safely without fear of being caught. Once you have enough experience and confidence, you can use good audience management so that your spectators never get the chance to examine the cards, and so that they will never even suspect the possibility that a marked deck is being used.

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DO-IT-YOURSELF

What about if you want to make your own marked deck, using the Bicycle deck of your choice that you already own? That's certainly possible, and there are several ways of doing this. You can come up with your own system if you are feeling creative. But why reinvent the wheel when there are already some excellent marking systems that have been devised by others and have already been time tested and proven. For something easy you can try right now at home with a Bicycle Rider Back deck, check out Jay Sankey's How to mark any deck video, which includes a simple trick.

Ted Lesley's method of making your own reader deck using transfers and using his book is still available, if that's the route you wish to go. Another excellent starting point is Pete McCabe's book PM Card Mark System (2010) which teaches you to make your own reader deck (with numbers and letters) using a sharpie, and also includes several good routines. The Mainframe system that Kevin Reylek came up with for Tally Ho Circle Backs is also quite brilliant, and can be obtained by contacting him (Instagram, Web). It comes with an excellent 24 page PDF that covers lots of additional tips and a few tricks to get you started.

The book Marked For Life (2002) by Kirk Charles includes a description of two strong systems invented by Bob Farmer, along with a wealth of other terrific information about marked decks. Bob's Farmarx system is the faster to read of the two. His Blob-o-Vision system requires a bit more calculation, but has the advantage that it can be read from further away, despite being more deceptively hidden. Hidden in Plain Sight (2005) is a more recent version of this book, and includes an extra chapter from Boris Wild about the Boris Wild Marked Deck. It's a brilliant book, well-referenced and thoroughly documented, and has a ton of great ideas for tricks with a marked deck.

Boris Wild also teaches his method for marking a deck in his book The Complete Boris Wild Marked Deck (2001), which includes numerous routines too. It's out of print, but you can get an updated and reworked version of his book under the new title Transparency (2012), which is also available as a PDF directly from Boris. If the book is too much of an investment for you, consider his Lecture Notes, which is a 40 page PDF containing the best from Transparency. Alternatively you can check out the previously mentioned book that Boris contributed to, Hidden in Plain Sight (2005). His marking system is also taught in the excellent video Boris produced with Big Blind Media, entitled Boris Wild's Marked Deck Project.

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RECOMMENDATION

So what marked deck is best for you? The answer will depend on your own needs and circumstances, and even your own preferences. For the typical performer who is serious about their card magic, it makes good sense to get a Bicycle style deck with a good reader system, because it won't draw attention to itself, while still being easy to use. That makes the Marked Cards from Penguin Magic and the GT SpeedReader from Garrett Thomas the top choices that will work best for most people, especially given their very affordable price points.

If you're less fussy about it being a Bicycle deck and just want something that is a standard looking deck and is easy to read, even from a good distance away, the popular DMC Elites won't disappoint. If you like the sound of what the Butterfly deck from Ondrej Psenicka can do, be assured that this is no mere hype, and is really what an edge marked deck is capable of. On the other hand if you want a Bicycle deck that has extra markings so that you can take advantage of a prearranged stack, take a look at Andy Nyman's The Code or Luke Jermay's remarkable Marksman Deck.

The instructional materials that you get with a marked deck may also be a big factor for you. One advantage of the Marked Deck from Penguin is that it comes with two lengthy tutorial videos that include a good number of tricks. It is very attractively priced considering that these teaching resources are included for free, making it excellent value.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

The reality is that we live in a market saturated with high quality magic products, including many outstanding marked decks, and it's hard to pick a "bad" option from the products available today. If you need more convincing, just head over to some magic forums and read through some old threads from 20 years ago or more about marked decks. In those days a quality marked reader deck that was factory printed was simply non-existent. Magicians from that era often had to make their own marked decks. Ted Lesley's system of applying transfers to the back of cards was widely used after it came out in 1983, and at the time was hailed as the best thing ever due to how easy it was to use a reader deck.

But once factory printed marked decks with reader systems started appearing around 2005, even Ted Lesley's system became somewhat obsolete. Today we have far more choice than he and his contemporaries ever did, and we have ready access to even more powerful marked decks. Just in the last decade alone we've seen some truly innovative marked decks appear on the market, especially the advanced decks that incorporate stacks, channelling the genius of Theodore DeLand's Automatic Deck, and bringing it to the 21st century in a much easier form.

All this means that options are now readily available to us that magicians could hardly have dreamed of decades ago. So regardless of what marked deck you choose, take the time to reflect on the giants on whose shoulders you stand. And be grateful for the fact that you have access to such wonderful resources. Consider yourself blessed, and have fun using your marked deck!

Where to get them - The two main decks covered in this article:
- DMC Elites by DMC & Phill Smith
- Butterfly Playing Cards by Ondrej Psenicka

Decks covered in previous articles - Factory printed marked Bicycle decks:
- Basic reader decks: Boris Wild Marked Deck, Ultimate Marked Deck, GT SpeedReader, Penguin's Marked Cards
- Advanced reader decks: Gambler's Marked Deck, The Code, Marksman Deck (all incorporate markings for a stack)

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Previous articles in this series (Marked Decks for Magicians - A Definitive Guide):
- Part 1: Why do magicians use marked decks?
- Part 2: What is the best marked deck for card magic?
- Part 3: The best factory printed marked Bicycle decks
- Part 4: Powerful marked Bicycle decks that use a stack

Acknowledgement: It is important that I provide readers with thorough and reliable information. So I want to acknowledge the assistance of many people I corresponded with when researching and writing these articles, especially numerous individuals who were personally involved in creating these decks. They kindly provided me with answers to specific questions I had along the way, and also reviewed relevant parts of the text to ensure that the information I included was up-to-date and accurate. I especially want to acknowledge the input of Kevin Reylek, who is an expert on the subject of marked cards, and whose assistance was invaluable. Kevin was extremely helpful in ensuring the accuracy of many fine details, and very generous in pointing me in the right direction and in providing me with the information I needed.

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