Fool’s Journey: The Key Cards That Make or Break a Tarot Deck

Header by Rory Midhani

Header by Rory Midhani

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When you’re seeking out a new tarot deck, which cards are the deal-breakers for you? Most of us have one or two (or more) specific cards that affect our feelings about each deck, and possibly our decision whether or not it’s one for us.

It might be that you have a special relationship with a particular card, so if that one isn’t illustrated in a way that works for you, you’re going to struggle to really bond with the deck as a whole. Or it may be more political, so you need to see particular concepts or archetypes illustrated in a certain way in order to feel that a deck represents your world view (e.g. feminism, as we discussed in the last Fool’s Journey).

The Wild Unknown Tarot, the Wanderer's Tarot

The Empress cards from the Wild Unknown Tarot and the Wanderer’s Tarot

There are a number of cards I focus on when I’m looking at new decks, which I’ve listed below. This isn’t quite the same as listing my ‘favourite cards’ — many of these aren’t necessarily favourites, it’s just that the way they’re illustrated tells me a lot about the vision behind the deck. I’ve used the term ‘deal-breaker’ above, but that’s not really an accurate description. Like many folks, I’m on a continual search for the perfect tarot deck, and I don’t have it yet (though I feel like Noel Arthur Hiempel might possibly help out with that). This means with each deck I own, I’m making some kind of compromise.

I’d love to hear which specific cards you look to when you’re checking out new tarot decks! And what compromises have you found yourself making?

Ten of Cups

This one is so important. I read this card as a depiction of what true fulfilment looks like, what it feels like to ‘come home’, spiritually, emotionally. What it’s like to be happy with yourself, to give and receive love, to be happy in your heart and soul.

Sadly, so many artists place a picture of a (straight-looking) couple on this card, often with children and a house to complete the image of heteronormative perfection. Even Thea’s Tarot, which I adore, shows a (lesbian) couple with a baby. Yes, that’s emotional fulfilment to many, but by no means all people, and I feel like the over-use of couplehood on this card actually damages its message.

The Wild Unknown Tarot, the Collective Tarot, the Tarot of the Cat People

The Wild Unknown Tarot, the Collective Tarot, Tarot of the Cat People

My favourite Ten of Cups, hands down, is from the Wild Unknown Tarot. Here Kim Krans uses the rainbow motif that characterises the deck beautifully. Five cups at the top, each beaming out light of a different colour. Below, five more cups receive the light, a rainbow arriving in each. It suggests a movement from the compartmentalised to the integrated. A fearlessness of being completely myself. A love for all that I am.

(I also love the Tarot of the Cat People version, which is basically just a guy and his many cats. Home, indeed.)


Here’s a card that carries a heavy weight. As the penultimate card in the major arcana, this is about that last step before completion, the final challenge that you’re facing on your journey. It’s a big moment, in which you’re being encouraged to be accountable to yourself, to face up to all that you are, the good and the ‘bad’ together. The Christian overtones in some images are strong, which I find off-putting, not to mention the name of the card itself, which carries obviously negative overtones.

The Collective Tarot, Thea’s Tarot, Tarot of the Cat People

In some decks, this card is renamed. In the Collective Tarot it’s ‘Liberation’, which feels perfect to me. In Thea’s Tarot, it’s ‘Rebirth’. Both of these place the focus on the person receiving the reading, rather than some external force. ‘Judgement’ to me sounds like standing in front of some terrible pulpit being told who and what I am, hardly the kind of experience I fancy going through. Liberation and Rebirth on the other hand? I’m up for the hard work it takes to experience those things. I feel like I’m being put in charge of my own destiny.

The Hierophant

I struggled with the Hierophant for years, largely because of the Pope-type figure that so often adorns this card. It felt like a card of doctrines, of strictures, of conforming to certain rules and beliefs (qualities I might better have attributed to the Emperor.)

The Collective Tarot, The Shadowscapes Tarot, The Wild Unknown Tarot

The Collective Tarot, the Shadowscapes Tarot, the Wild Unknown Tarot

This changed when I saw Stephanie Piu-Mun Law’s version. In the Shadowscapes Tarot, the Hierophant is a tree (it feels a lot like one of the ents in Lord of the Rings) and I began to have a sense of the ancestral qualities of this card. There’s something here about receiving time-honoured knowledge from those who have been before (that can be spiritual leaders, sure, but also community heroes, activists, members of your own family, ancestors of identity or blood…) and I love to see decks that take that kind of knowledge out of church-y environments and revision teachers in different ways, like the raven in the Wild Unknown, or the awesome Instructor in the Collective Tarot.

Queen of Swords

Like about half the folks reading this, I’m a big fan of the Queen of Swords, and I pay close attention to the way they’re depicted. For me, this is a person who’s been through some stuff, who knows what heartbreak is, who understands boundaries and has a touch of cynicism about them. At the same time, they’re strong and humorous and someone you’d trust with your most difficult truths.

Tarot of the Cat People, Circo Tarot, Thea's Tarot

Tarot of the Cat People, Circo Tarot, Thea’s Tarot

It’s hard to say exactly what I’m looking for in this card, but it’s a glimpse in the face or posture of these qualities. I want to see a Queen of Swords who embodies that ‘just you try it’ kind of composure, but who still has a glint in their eye. Someone strong and hard…but with just a hint of of the compassion that lies beneath. I think for me, Karen Kuykendall’s version, in the Tarot of the Cat People, does it best.

The Empress

If I see one more pregnant earth-mama…! Show me Empresses that are connecting with nature, who know the meaning of self-care, who know how to listen to their bodies, who can see a version of ‘receptiveness’ beyond the womb-based kind, who grow stuff and feed people and who make beautiful spaces for themselves and others to come home to. When I think of the Empress figures in my life, I rarely imagine pregnant mothers. I think of folks whose groundedness and solid self-love have made me feel comfortable and safe, nurtured and loved. It’s not that a pregnant woman can’t embody this, it’s just that I love to see artists who have thought beyond this cliche.

I always check out the Empress card in a new deck to see how this important archetype is expressed. A favourite, again, is the Wild Unknown Tarot — no person, just a glowing tree beneath the moon. It’s a tree I want to hug, a place I’d like to make my home. And I love Casey Zabala’s interpretation in the newly-released Wanderer’s Tarot — the cow-headed person chilling out in the sunset references this card’s link with beauty-loving Taurus. (You can see a photo right up at the top of this article.)

How about you? Any specific cards that make or break a deck for you? Have you found a deck that ticks all of your key-card boxes? What’s the one card that never seems quite right?

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Beth Maiden is a tarot reader and writer based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales. She has two cats, a hot builder girlfriend, far too many tarot decks and not enough coffee cups. She's really into bread, the colour red, camping and brand new notebooks. She'd love to cut your hair, read your cards or hang out with you on her blog, Little Red Tarot!

Beth has written 111 articles for us.


  1. The High Priestess is an important one for me, and a real challenge to illustrate: how do you show intuition? She can easily come off looking coy, sexualised or cheesy. I quite like the World Spirit version by Onca O’Leary, where we see her as a strong, naked woman, performing a ritual in the middle of a deep wood. I’m still searching for the card that really captures my conception of her, though.

    It’s also always interesting to check out the Lovers and 2 of Cups, to see what the deck is doing with partnership, romance, commitment. The Wild Unknown Lovers with the pair of geese is hands down the best I’ve seen, while the Fountain tarot has my favourite 2 of cups (two women sitting together as they set their cups to drift away). These cards conjure up so many cliches; it’s great to see when artists have something more to say.

    With new decks, I’m always interested to check out cards that I struggle to understand, to see if the artist can shed new light, as you said with the hierophant. The Emperor, Devil and Justice are my biggies. I really like the Wild Unknown’s take on the Emperor and the Devil–it’s representation of Justice, though, feels to me like one of the weaker cards.

    Really interesting post! And I am so, so excited about Dust II Onyx.

    • Yes! To all of this @ratscantknit! I can’t think of many tarot’s that go beyond the coy/sexualised/cheesy High Priestess and probably love the Rider-Waite-Smith version best of all – they’re confident, looking directly ahead, and I love that the veil is so thin and has gaps. The Collective Tarot’s HP is good too, an old woman – I like this very much.

      And yes exactly, it’s when a deck sheds new light on old cards it really sets itself apart as something special. I think that’s what bonded me with the Shadowscapes so early on, though I now see many of the cards as a little cheesy, so many felt like they taught me that you could reimagine tarot in your own way.

      • Yes! I was actually gonna say I think the RWS High Priestess is one of the best, but I worried I was rabbiting on too much. I like her settled poise, and I really like your point about the veil. I’m having another look at it now, and I’ve just realised she seems to be set up on a beach? I like her even more. If I ever get into a throne-type situation, I want it to be on a beach. (Morgan Greer is pretty good as well, along similar lines, and she looks sort of middle aged). Having her as an old woman–just looked up the image, and it’s really, really lovely.

        • @ratscantknit Yeah, it’s like she’s on a beach. Rachel Pollack describes this really well in 78 Degress of Wisdom – my copy is out on loan at the moment but it’s sort of about how we all fear what’s behind the High Priestess’s veil, is it a turbulent ocean of terrifying emotion where we’re all gonna drown…no, actually, it’s a really calm, tranquil, moonlit sea that’s peaceful and inviting (and private). A private beach! Blissful, if you think about it.

  2. The Lovers is a dealbreaker/maker for me… I’m always in search of of queer decks and non-human-based decks so I don’t have to look at a naked straight couple. (Why they always naked?) I don’t mind the earth mamas and the happy families so much, since I aspire to that eventually. But you’re right– young, scantily-clad newly-pregnants maybe shouldn’t be used to represent the abundance of the Empress. I’m working on a queer deck myself (or planning one… I don’t have the art skills) and I think I’d portray her as a gardener or a baker, old enough to have had several children, but maybe not, you know? Maybe she feeds her community at Vegan Cooking Night.

    • A baker! That’s awesome @hoss! Wow, I hope you’ll share your deck creation with us!

      And yeah – the Lovers card can be so problematic. Naked straight couples aside, it’s also a common trop to show someone choosing between two lovers on this card (a reference to one of the traditional meanings, that it’s about choice). I ditched a much-loved deck, the Secret Tarot, over its illustration of the Lovers (basically a man choosing between the honourable-looking lady, and a red-haired harlot, like it was ‘do I choose the high road or the low road.) The Wild Unknown Lovers is a pair of geese which I love because of the Sarah Dougher song ‘everywhere west’, but again I’d love to see more decks illustrate this card without showing a couple.

      The Dreaming Way Tarot version is cool, I think it’s hinting at the ‘choice’ thing, but it looks kinda poly: “img src=””>

  3. The Lovers, the Tower, and 7 of Cups for me. I connect more with the Making Choices/Commitments aspect of the Lovers, so any excessively ~couplesy~ card is offputting, queer or otherwise. I love the Sharman-Caselli deck for that, because there’s ambiguity about who is doing the choosing in this scene – I’m assuming it’s the blonde lady, myself :D

    The Tower is my favorite card for the space and potential that destroying or losing everything gives you, and I find cards that focus entirely on ‘look everything is on fire how awful’ too flat to work for me. I’m not particular about how 7Cups should look? but it shows up a LOT in personal readings, so if it’s aesthetically a no-go, so is the whole deck, alas.

    • With this image of the Lovers, I also really start to think about bisexuality. It’s my birth card, and I am bisexual, so this is a very interesting new angle! Wonder if anything has been written on this subject?

        • Hmm, I’ve never read anything about the Lovers and bisexuality specifically.

          I’m looking at that Sharman Caselli version and seeing the same ‘virgin/whore’ thing I see in the Secret Tarot, it looks like a man choosing between two women. I love the idea of it representing bisexuality and that it’s not necessarily the fella doing the choosing (or not)!

          • Thanks for your insight! I’ll keep meditating on this new discovery for me. The poly interpretation is also inspiring. This is what I love about the tarot – there is always room for new findings.

  4. I’m just getting into tarot now and reading all the Fool’s Journey posts so I’m a little late to the party. But I looked at about a billion decks before just purchasing Shadowscapes and I found that one of the really important cards for me was Death. So often it’s skeletons or skulls and I feel like that plays into the negative connotations of the card. In the Shadowscapes deck, it’s a Phoenix, which is such an important symbol to me I have it tattooed on my arm. I love the immediate portrayal of Death as rebirth, of something new is coming but first you have to go through this loss. That and the Ent as Hierophant were the things that tipped me over to that deck.

    • @lezbrarian I agree – the ‘rebirth’ part of death is so crucial to understanding its message (alongside the letting go that is the ‘death’ here) that I often wonder why more decks don’t show images like the phoenix.

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