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Are All Tarot Decks The Same?

    You look at all the tarot decks available on the shelf in the New Age store. Why are there so many different decks? Are they all the same, or do they differ? When you are new to the Tarot, the vast array of decks might overwhelm you at first.

    Not all Tarot decks are the same. As a general rule, there are three main types of Tarot decks; Rider-Waite-Smith, Tarot de Marseille, and the Thoth system. The decks within the different schools have the same structure and card meanings, but the images on the cards might differ widely.

    First of all, there are three major “schools” of Tarot with different systems and card meanings. They are Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), Tarot de Marseille (TdM), and Thoth. The decks within the three systems are systematically the same, but the imagery might differ. They have the “same” cards, so to speak, but they might look different. 


    Not all Tarot decks are the same. There are three major schools of Tarot decks.

    • The Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS)
    • Thoth
    • Tarot de Marseille (TdM)

    Every “school” follows a distinct structure and the card meanings are the same. The look of the cards might differ a lot, but their meaning is still the same. This is because of the designers’ artistic interpretation. Each deck designer makes their interpretation of the card’s meaning. 

    It’s a great thing that tarot decks follow a defined structure. The Tarot reader doesn’t need to learn the system or card meaning for every single deck out there. When you know one system, you can read all the decks within the school.

    My recommendation is to start learning one system. You can change decks within the system. When you feel you want to learn more, you move on to another system.

    I read, for example, the Rider-Waite and the Tarot de Marseille systems myself. I haven’t learned the Thoth system yet, but I might want to in the future. No system is better than another. Go with our heart and gut feeling. My first system was the Rider-Waite-Smith. I started with that system as there is so much information about it available.

    Below you find examples of how the different tarot systems look like. This is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck I use the most, the Tarot Vintage. (Paid Link – Amazon). I love it as it’s made to look vintage and worn but still have the RWS imagery.

    Rider-Waite tarot deck
    My favorite Rider-Waite tarot deck. I love the vintage look.

    This is my Tarot de Marseille deck (Paid link – Amazon). I don’t use it as much as the Rider-Waite-Smith decks but I find it very beautiful. The sparse scenery on the cards is great when you are a bit more experienced. It helps you form your own meanings for the cards, and not get “distracted” by the scenery depicted. The suits are only pips (without scenery – just abstract symbols). 

    Rider-Waite tarot deck

    Below is a picture of the Thoth deck. The imagery is made to hone in on your intuition. The court cards play a more critical role in the readings than in the Rider-Waite. The suits have intruiging pips.

    Some of my friends use the Thoth and I think the deck is very beautiful overall. The symbolism and card meanings are different in many cases from the Rider-Waite, even if some of the cards have similar names. 

    Thoth deck

    As I don’t own a Thoth deck (yet!) I used a picture from Amazon. (Paid link – Amazon).


    There are different styles of tarot decks within the same systems. For example, the Rider-Waite-Smith system has cards with very detailed and intricate imagery – but there are others with not more than pips (but still Rider-Waite-based). Pips cards with only abstract symbols on them and no scenery. 

    The important thing is to know what school you read and stick to decks using that structure. Sometimes it can be hard to know what system a particular deck is. My recommendation is to ask the seller. When you get more experienced, you will see what system they belong to. But until then, ask. It’s nothing wrong with that. 

    Some decks are easy to define, as the title gives clues. Different variations of the classic Rider-Waite deck might have names as “Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot” and alike. Other decks are trickier as they might have exotic names as “The Wild Unknown”. The Wild Unknown deck is, for example, a variation of the RWS system – they have just renamed some cards, but the meaning of them can be read the same as the RWS. You see, sometimes it gets tricky.

    In the picture below you find three variations of the same card, the Three of Swords. The cards’ look is very different, but they all mean the same thing as they belong to the same “school.” These cards are from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck school and structure. 

    Three of Swords from three different decks
    This is the Three of Swords from three different decks. As you notice, they are all the “same” but look very different.


    What’s a pip tarot card?


    The art of using cards to reveal secret or hidden information is called cartomancy. The most common types of cards are Tarot, Oracle, Angel, and Lenormand. Some use regular playing cards as well. All of these types of cards can be found on the “Tarot shelf” in the shop.


    Oracle cards do not have the same structure as Tarot. They can differ from deck to deck. Sometimes the meaning of the cards is printed on the cards; sometimes, the card meanings come with a booklet. There are no set rules here.

    My favorite Oracle deck is the Kuan Yin (Paid Link – Amazon). The card meanings come with a booklet. You draw a card, and then you read the card meaning – you don’t need to learn a whole system. The Oracle decks are often uplifting and empowering. Tarot is often more nuanced – and you get the shadow side of the situation as well.

    Oracle decks are often focused on self-discovery and growth. They have messages that bring hope but don’t really say how to resolve or fix a situation. I often call them “friends”, as they bring hope and support not always the answer. 


    Angel cards are often used for daily or weekly forecasts. They sometimes have a message printed on them. Angel cards call for advice from external entities, like fairies, deities, and angels. Most Angel cards have uplifting and empowering messages. They are often not as complicated as Tarot. Angel cards are straightforward and easy to use. Of course, this is a generalization.


    This is another type of deck used for card readings. The Lenormand deck gives the reader practical solutions to a situation, which is not always the case with Tarot or other types of decks. The Tarot gives you the why, and the Lenormand the “how”. They also contain both the positive and the negative in the same cards – there are no reversals as in Tarot for example. 

    Kuan Yin Oracle
    My favorite Oracle cards, Kuan Yin Oracle.

    As you notice, the different types of decks give different answers. Depending on your personality, and your preferences one type of deck might suit you better than another. I have a very hard time with Angel cards, for example, as I don’t believe in fairies and angels. I love the deep messages of the Tarot that give me the answers for “why” things are as they are. 

    In challenging times I go for my Oracle cards, though. They act as a friend just listening and being there. This is just wants I need from time to time.


    Not all Tarot decks are the same. There are different schools with different systems and card meanings. The cards might look very different as well, as the creator puts their unique touch on them. Sometimes it can be confusing even for an experienced reader.

    My recommendation is to look for clues to what school a deck belongs to by checking the card previews on the back of the box. Sometimes it’s revealed in the name of the deck itself- as “Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot”, for example. 

    Some decks are a mix of different schools as well. Yes, who said Tarot and card reading is easy, right? Ask the seller if you have any questions. They should be able to help you pick a suitable deck for you and your preferred system. 

    Depending on your needs or preferences, there is always a school that will fit your style. As a beginner, you can start with Oracle-, Angel decks or the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot.

    Oracle and Angel decks are often easy to start with as the card meaning is printed on the cards or is easily accessible in a booklet. The RWS Tarot is a bit more tricky to get started with, but there ton of material available.

    As you see, there are so many different options available. My recommendation is to stay open-minded and go with your heart. Try things, you will find what school and deck fit you and your personality.

    Sandra Törnroth

    Intuitive multi-modal tarot reader with a love for crystals and everything esoteric


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