Although there are now hundreds of varieties of Tarot decks, most fall into one of three general styles -- Marseilles, Rider-Waite-Smith (also called Rider-Waite, or just RWS), and Thoth.
There are typically 78 cards in a Tarot deck -- 14 cards in each of four different suits, plus an extra 22 cards called the "Trump" cards. These 22 trump cards are known as the Major Arcana; the remaining 56 cards are called the Minor Arcana.
The Major Arcana -- the 22 Trump cards -- are handled very much the same in all of the three different flavors of Tarot decks. It's the treatement of the Minor Arcana cards that determines which general style your deck follows.
|Marseilles - Nine of Cups|
The first style -- Marseilles -- follows the traditional, old-school style found in early Tarot decks -- and also in standard playing card decks. The artwork on the Major Arcana tends to be simple and limited to only a few colors. The Minor Arcana looks much like ordinary playing cards -- there are four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, Page) and 10 "pip" cards (Ace through Ten). Again, the artwork on the face cards tends to be simple. The pip cards don't have artwork other than a "pip" count. For instance, a Five of Swords will have five swords depicted on the card.
The Marseilles style looks so much like playing cards because Tarot decks were originally used to play a card game! It wasn't until later that mystics began to use these decks for divinatory purposes.
The second style of deck -- RWS (After Rider, the publisher, Waite, the designer, and Smith, the artist) -- was published in the early 1900's. It was designed from the very beginning for magickal use.
Because of this, the artwork is much more complex and symbolic. The Major Arcana and the face cards are more colorful, lifelike, and detailed. It's the Minor Arcana, though, where you'll find the main difference.
|Six of Swords - RWS|
Rather than using pip simple counts, the artist (Pamela Coleman Smith -- who also illustrated childrens adventure stories) decided to draw vignettes of people engaged in some phase of everyday life. Because of this, the pip card images touch your subjective mind and yield many thoughtful perspectives -- what are the people in the images thinking, what are their motivations, what are their fears, etc -- to enrich Tarot readings. (Note: I use a RWS clone -- the Robin Wood deck -- when I do readings. However, the images on the blog are from the RWS deck.)
|Thoth - Two of Swords|
The final deck style is the Thoth style -- named after a deck designed by Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Freida Harris. The Thoth deck was intended for magickal use from the very beginning. The paintings are surrealistic and highly symbolic. Thoth adds a new technique to the mix, though. Each non-face card of the Minor Arcana has a subheading describing some motivation or aspect -- things like Happiness, Luxury, Virtue, Oppression, etc. Because of this, some readers find it easy to read with Thoth decks. Thoth decks also make it easy to draw from other esoteric disciplines -- like astrology or Kabbalah -- in order to create inspired Tarot readings.
Most decks you'll find in a bookstore will follow one of these three basic styles. Marseilles styles will use pip counts, RWS styles will use pip scenes, and Thoth styles tend to be surrealistic but label the Minor Arcana with additional descriptions.