Coded System Marked DecksMarked decks are a very special tool, because they contain a variety of secrets that helps magicians perform amazing tricks that would never otherwise be possible. You do not need to learn any complex moves that take a long time to master, because you can use the markings on the card backs to identify cards, and this enables you to accomplish apparent miracles with relative ease.
The markings on marked decks typically come in two main forms: reader systems and coded systems. Reader systems are very straight forward to use, because somewhere hidden on the card back is printed the actual value and suit of the card, e.g. 9 of Hearts would be indicated by 9H. While this makes them easy to use, it also means that there's an increased risk that the marking system can be detected.
Coded systems are much more subtle than reader systems, because they rely on other visual indicators to tell you the value and suit of the cards. One example is the famous marked deck by Theodore De Land, which first appeared more than a hundred years ago in the early 1900s. It's still published today with names like "DeLand's Original $100 Deck" or "DeLand's Automatic Playing Cards". The artwork on the back had circular patterns that corresponded to a clock face, and depending on which dots were coloured in, you could immediately identify the value and suit of a card.
Coded marking systems like this can be very subtle, and it's much less likely that a spectator will figure it out, unless they are told. Even if they notice some unusual dots, or variations in the pattern of the card back design, these will often seem meaningless to the unenlightened unless they know the secret. But when you do know the secret, these marking systems can quickly be mastered and used for strong magic tricks.
I've already covered marked decks using reader systems in a previous article, so in this article I'm only covering marked decks that use an coded system of marking. It's not an exhaustive list of all such decks, since there are many, many such decks that have been produced over the years. I also wanted to ensure that anything recommended here is actually readily available on the market today, so I've only included decks that you can easily find for purchase. I won't pretend that this is a definitive list of the all-time top marked decks with coded systems, since there may well be other candidates as good as the ones included here. But these are some of my own favourites that I have used myself, and most of them are popular, and are well worth considering if you're looking for a marked deck of this sort.
Mint v2The Mint v2 decks are available in either blue (Blueberry) or green (Cucumber). They were the brainchild of Asad Chaudhry, who runs 52Kards, a popular youtube training channel for card magic and cardistry.
The Mint brand was created with the goal of providing the perfect deck for magicians, by combining classic playing cards with a modern design pattern that feels contemporary and stylish. This is the second version of the deck, with some enhancements to the original, and was produced with the help of over half a million dollars of support on Kickstarter - a real testament to the popularity of the Mint brand.
This beautiful deck immediately impresses once you hold the tuck box in your hand, with a simple look topped with stylish foil, that conveys a sense of luxury and class. The lavish use of foiling on the back of the box accentuates the tiled design that is this deck's signature. Full interior printing with a tiled design in metallic foil confirms this impression once you open the box.
The card faces have had a makeover from the standard look, and the adjustments that have been made to the pips and court cards results in a fresh approach that still looks familiar and practical. The indices employ a thinner and more elegant font which also emphasizes that this is an original design while not being too far removed from the traditional style we are all used to, to ensure that they will still be at home in the hands of a magician.
To figure out the marking system, you'll have to head to the 52Kards youtube channel. Asad has made a 12 minute video where he explains all the ins and outs of the marking system, and you can check this out even if you don't own the deck.
It's a very practical and well thought out system that isn't hard to learn, and the Mint V2 deck is a definite improvement on the original version of this deck in several ways.
The crew at Mechanic Industries first created their Mechanic decks, which featured card backs with flipbook animation, and more importantly with a marking system hidden in the cogs and wheels. The Mechanic v2 deck is the improved and revised version of the original.
After the success of this deck, they decided to produce a very special version of their deck to celebrate the fifth birthday of Mechanic Industries in 2017. And what better birthday present can there be than something new and shiny? The Mechanic Metallic decks are a matching pair entitled Glimmer (gold) and Shiner (Silver). For added luxury, the interior of these tuck boxes is entirely foiled, for a visually stunning look! The outside of the tuck boxes also employs extensive use of foil, along with stylish embossing.
Metallic gold and silver inks are used for the card backs to ensure a completely glamorous look, which has a design similar to the original Mechanic decks.
To match the stylish look of the tuck boxes, metallic gold, silver, and red Pantone inks have been used on both the backs and faces of all the cards. Metallic silver ink decorates the court cards of the Shiner deck, while metallic gold ink is used for the court cards of the Glimmer deck.
As an extra bonus for magicians, the included Jokers include images of the Grinder coins from Mechanic Industries, giving possibilities for combining card magic with coin magic.
Like the original Mechanic Deck, the metallic decks have both a flip book animation system and a marking system built into the card backs. Riffling through the deck shows the cogs turning, and therein also lies the secret for identifying the suit and value of each card, which is cleverly built into the design.
Despite only being a teenager, Pravar Jain is a professional magician and cardist from India, who has accomplished more than most of us. He formed his own company Area52, and it's under this label that he produced the Mortalis deck, which was released in very limited numbers in October 2018.
The actual design of the playing cards is by Canadian Christofer Lacoste, who was also behind the art of the popular Mint Playing Cards.
This deck has a very practical look, with standard indices and pips on the faces for the most part. One exception is the changed look of the court cards, which have been re-coloured by replacing the usual garish yellows and reds with more muted colours including a soft beige, which creates a more professional look. The Ace of Spades features a giant pip that reprises the design from the card backs, and looks similar to the look on the front of the tuck box.
One surprise is the absence of Jokers. Pravar has never felt the use for Jokers, and decided to opt for two gaff cards instead. Given the love for magicians that is shown in the card backs, this won't come entirely as a surprise. The gaff cards are a double-backer, and a duplicate King of Hearts.
The deck comes with a link to a seven page PDF that explains how the marking system works. It features a coded marking system that Pravar himself created, and is based on how you read a clock. As the back of the tuck box proclaims: "The closer you look, the less you see."
The markings are fairly well hidden, and rather clever, although a riffle test will show that something unusual is going on. Pravar states that it can be read quickly in under 3 seconds, although I think it will take quite a bit of practice to be able to read it that quickly.
KnightsCreated by Daniel Madison and Chris Ramsay, the Knights deck from Ellusionist draws on a tradition as old playing cards themselves: chess. It pays tribute to this golden foundation stone of modern gaming, and takes its name from the piece with the unusual movement: The Knight.
Pictured here is the Gold edition, which has a tuck box with an elegant and distinguished combination of white with gold foil, giving an immediately luxurious and classic appearance. The popularity of this deck is evident from the fact that this edition was followed by several other versions in different colours: Green, Red, and Blue.
The number cards and court cards feature a uniformity in style, but retain a limited colour palette within the confines of a somewhat traditional look, to enhance the look and feel of complete class.
I especially love the Joker, which features a check-mated king and a raven. But there's no doubt that all the cards evoke an immediate sense of style and sophistication, and it is also a very practical and functional deck.
The back of the cards has a college of small chess pieces decorating the artwork, and therein of course lies our clever secret.
When it was first released, this wasn't even advertised as a marked deck, and the secret will escape the notice of all but the very careful observer. What I like about this system is that it doesn't use clock-style markings, but a very different system, one that is also thematically related to chess and the point value of the pieces.
1900 SeriesThe Blue 1900 Series deck is a brand new release from Ellusionist.
But it doesn't come out of nowhere, because it is a successor to their highly popular vintage series 1800 marked decks, and is perhaps even intended as their replacement. The 1800 series decks featured standard Bicycle rider-back designs that had been put through a very convincing faux aging process.
Just like its predecessor, the 1900 series deck literally looks like it is more than a century old, and it's just as if a deck of cards has survived more than a century. Even the tuck box is designed to look genuinely ancient and worn.
Yet despite the old, rustic, and grungy look, which makes the cards look cracked and worn, the cards themselves are the same high quality as a normal Bicycle deck, and handle beautifully. Their vintage look, combined with quality handling, never fails to impress people.
I haven't included the popular 1800 series decks on this list, because their availability is limited and they aren't being reprinted. I suspect this because of strict new rules that Bicycle has implemented to prohibit publishing decks that change the rider-back design, which would exclude the reader system of the 1800 series decks.
As a result of this new policy, the 1900 series deck relies instead on carefully distinguishing the location of dark stains and white scratches that indicate the suit and value of the cards. This marking system requires fairly close attention to detail, and tired eyes may find this a little tricky. But the weathered look is brilliant, and the deck is worth getting for that alone. The style of weathering is different than the 1800 series decks, but it is equally effective - although I am concerned that it could also draw attention to itself, and thus give away this deck's secret. Even so, it's a very stylish deck.
The Polyantha deck is from Daniel Schneider, and is part of his series of "Black Roses" decks. Daniel had previously created his first deck, Black Roses Playing Cards, in 2014. This was his second deck, so he employed similar artwork for the card faces, but he removed every colour for an exclusively all-black look in a classic casino style, to target magicians. The word polyantha is taken from the Rosa Polyantha species of rose that was popular around the turn of the 20th century, and is simply a name that Daniel found appealing.
The Polyantha deck did already appear in 2016, with printing by MPC. This 2019 re-release sees this deck get a wider distribution and a higher quality printing courtesy of USPCC.
Looking at the faces will reveal that despite the traditional look, customization has been applied, by featuring various personalities from the world of magic and the world of playing cards. If you look carefully there are some other fun details, such as the two black roses below the giant Ace of Spades pip, which indicates that this is Daniel's second deck design. Two extra cards are also included: a jet black casino cut card, and a 50/50 gaff consisting of a 2 of Diamonds and a 8 of Spades.
Given the jet black look, these are the kind of playing cards perfect for low light situations where the colours are hard to distinguish anyway. It is precisely the kind of sleek deck that you'd expect to find in the hands of James Bond types in a casino setting. It won't be for everyone, and it won't be ideal for most card magic due to the all-black cards, but there will be some magicians for whom this deck will make the perfect look given their style.
The cards have a borderless back design that produces an eye-catching pattern in fans and spread. A closer look reveals a tiled pattern consisting of tiny black roses. Studying these closely will prove to be the key that unlocks this deck's secret markings. These will not easily be detected by the unenlightened, because the markings are extremely tiny and well-hidden, and you'll need very, very good eye-sight to pick them up.
My deck didn't come with any information explaining the marking system, and it proved quite challenging to figure out, even though I knew it was a marked deck. I contacted Daniel and quickly received an image that clearly explained everything. Technically it is a reader system rather than a coded system, but I've included it in this list given that it's very well hidden, and that you do have to rely on a coded system for figuring out the suits of the cards.
Once again I've left one of the best decks for last. The Butterfly deck from Ondrej Psenicka deserves special mention for having a truly innovative system that allows you to do things with it that are truly impossible to do with any other deck.
The second edition of this acclaimed deck comes with a choice of either red or blue card backs. It is very well presented, and makes an immediate impression with the gorgeous custom wrapper that the deck is shipped in.
The faces of the deck have a fairly standard look to them, but the card backs feature a stunning borderless design that revolves around the beautiful buttterfly, and I love how this looks in fans and spreads.
Also noteworthy is the fact that this deck is produced by Cartamundi. As a result the cards are slightly thicker and yet feel softer than a standard USPCC produced deck.
More importantly however, is the fact that this ground-breaking deck employs a unique and ingenious marking system that even trained magicians won't easily detect. With the deck you get a key card that explains how the marking system works, as well as a link to full video instructions (53 minutes!) that explains everything thoroughly.
When the two built in marking systems are combined, it's incredible what you're able to do with this deck, because you can read a card without even spreading the deck. It takes some time to master, but you can do real miracles once you have it down, including finding any card just by looking at the side of the deck. It's truly amazing, and as proof of this deck's power is the fact that its creator, Ondrej Psenicka, used it successfully to fool Penn and Teller on their Fool Us show!
Final ThoughtsOne series of decks that I haven't included in the above list is the NOC decks. These have a minimalist back design, which accounts for the acronym behind the name (Nothing Only Color). This makes them very popular with cardists, and they have been released in a wide range of different colours, and slight adjustments for style. Because these cards only indicate the suit, it's not a fully marked deck in the strict sense, which is why it doesn't qualify for the above list. But the markings are so clever, that they are almost impossible for the `unenlightened' to figure them out even if they're looking for them. Many people who own these decks don't even realize that they're marked!
Of the ones listed above, which ones are the best? This will largely be a matter of pure preference, and can be decided by which style you like the best. You should consider how much effort you are willing to put into deciphering a coded marking system, and how easy it is to use.
Do remember that none of these decks are intended for your weekly poker night. The secret that is built into the card backs specifically has the professional magician and mentalist in mind, so don't be tempted misuse them! But if you do enjoy card magic, it's terrific to see the growing range of marked decks available, and the ones featured here are among the best you'll find.
Where to get them: See a large range of marked decks over on PlayingCardDecks.com here.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.