No matter what you collect, if you're a collector, the hobby of collecting can quickly become all-consuming ... and expensive. The longer you've been collecting, the more you realize that you need to limit what you collect to what you really like, regardless of what the rest of the world says or likes. But even just collecting what you like will quickly prove limitless. There's a vast amount of cards that have already been produced, and there's steady flow of new cards that are being released on an ongoing basis.
This is why many collectors of playing cards tend to focus their collecting in some way. So you might collect decks from a particular creator, like Alexander Chin (Seasons Playing Cards), Giovanni Meroni (Thirdway Industries), or Jody Eklund (Black Ink Playing Cards). Alternatively, you might collect cards that have a single theme, such as music, animals, advertising, or even something more obscure and yet interesting like typography or animation - you'd be surprised how many decks fall into these categories alone! Some people like to collect decks of a certain type, like transformation decks, or reproductions of vintage decks. Yet others follow a single brand like Theory11 or Ellusionist.
But arguably one of the most popular series to collect are what some refer to as "hype decks". These are decks that have effectively become a brand of their own by virtue of their sheer popularity. In the last few years alone there are several "brands" that have generated a huge wave of momentum. Almost every new release is quickly sold out, and previous releases don't take long to fetch high prices in the secondary market, as collectors scramble to "collect 'em all". In this article we'll introduce you to some of the more popular series of this sort that many playing card enthusiasts enjoy collecting.
FontainesThe Fontaine brand is one of the biggest and most recognizable brands in the world of playing cards today, especially in cardistry circles. When you first see a Fontaine deck of cards you might wonder why. After all, what is there to get excited about card backs which have a lower-case "f" put together in a simple and minimalist design, and card faces that are mostly standard?
The reason for the success of this brand is the man behind it, Zach Mueller. Zach began making a name for himself with his creative cardistry videos, some of which went viral on youtube. Inspired by the iconic Jerry's Nugget casino deck which appears later on this list, around 2013 Zach whipped up a simple design of his own, printed the deck, and began using it in his cardistry videos. It wasn't even originally conceived as deck that would be published more widely, nor was including it in his cardistry videos originally intended as a marketing gimmick. But the popularity of his videos did have the result of producing a demand for decks like the one Zach was using. When he tried his hand at crowdfunding one, it became an instant success.
Zach built on this success with further releases of the same design but in different colours, and later expanded his Fontaine brand to include clothing and other merchandise. Today the Fontaine company has a significant number of releases every year, and they are typically so much in demand that each sells out in minutes. While many of the initial decks didn't evidence much variety aside from recolouring the back design, in recent times we have witnessed some more innovation, such as collaborations with other artists, and a UV black-light edition.
OrbitsThe Orbit decks come from magician Chris "Orbit" Brown, with involvement from designer Daniel Schneider. The Orbit series is extremely popular with card flourishers, and it's not surprising why. The circle design on the card backs makes it ideal for cardistry. The first version of the deck was blue, had a print run of only 2500, and only managed to hit its Kickstarter target on the final day when it was put up for crowdfunding in 2015. In contrast, today collectors can't get enough of them! The fourth edition alone had a print run of ten times that amount, and the first few versions of the deck will now cost a pretty penny on the secondary market - if you can find them.
Common to most of the decks in the series is of course the signature circle look of the card backs. But there's also the regular presence of light-hearted jokers, mini-astronauts, and even tiny orbitting rockets on the card backs, all of which capture something of the galactic and space theme, and add elements of warm humor. There have been minor tweaks to the design to ensure that each deck is not just a simple recolouring of the previous version. The V7 deck is noteworthy for its retro pink and blue colours, and for including a tribute to the failed mission of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and has the added bonus of being a very cleverly marked deck.
The face cards of the Orbit decks mostly feature a style borrowed from the classic Arrco decks, which gives them a slightly different feel from your typical Bicycle deck, while ensuring that they still have a very familiar, recognizable, and practical look. Some of the decks feature even members of the Orbit crew as the court card characters. It is certainly a successful formula, and these are versatile playing cards that are both novel and familiar enough to make them suit a variety of purposes, from card flourishing to card magic. As with most other entries on this list, the success of the series has generated an increased demand for the first decks in the series, which are not easy to get hold of.
Jerry's NuggetThe history of the Jerry's Nugget decks is a fascinating one, and it even includes a great detective story. The short version is that these striking red and blue decks were first printed in the early 1970s for Jerry's Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. They ended up in storage instead of being used at the casino, and eventually made their way to the gift shop, where they were sold for a dollar or two each. At this point they were discovered by some big name cardists, who began popularizing them via their videos, and spoke highly of their handling qualities, which were the result of printing methods that couldn't be replicated with modern methods. The demand for them grew, but by this time they were sold out. With a limited supply and increased demand, they slowly became a holy grail for collectors, prices typically reaching $500 per deck on the market.
Around 2019 Lee Asher became involved with a project to reprint the cards, to make them readily available again, and put them in the hands of a new generations of cardists and collectors. A deal was brokered between Expert Playing Card Company and Jerry's Nugget Casino, and with the help of an incredibly successful Kickstarter project that fetched nearly half a million dollars, a new edition of Jerry's Nugget decks hit the market.
The new decks are almost like the original, but consist of a Modern Feel version printed by USPCC and a Vintage Feel version printed by EPCC. The scene was ripe for capitalizing on the popularity of these classic decks, and so the deck was subsequently reprinted in colours like Teal, Coral, Black, Steel Grey, Yellow, Orange, Green, and purple. There are also some limited editions like Pink, and there are even special limited editions with gilding. Many card flourishers love the minimalist look of this series, the famous name and iconic look, and the variety of different colours make them ideal for collectors.
Cherry CasinoThe Jerry's Nugget decks aren't the only decks that capitalize on the public interest in old-time casinos. This is also the concept that lies at the heart of the Cherry Casino decks, which is a series of playing cards produced under the Pure Imagination label. Pure Imagination Projects was founded in 2013 by Derek McKee, and the first Cherry Casino deck was produced around 2015 in a bright aqua colour. The idea was to draw on the image of an old time casino, hence the classic cherry artwork familiar from slot machines, an iconic symbol of gambling. Several versions then followed in successive years, as the Cherry Casino decks slowly grew in popularity.
One of the drawcards of this series is the bold metallic ink used on the cardbacks for most of these decks, which instantly sets them apart from your average deck. One of my personal favourite colours in this series is the Tahoe Blue, which is inspired by one of the clearest and deepest lakes in the United States, Lake Tahoe. The use of metallic ink on card backs creates a gorgeous and inviting pearlescent blue that is hard to get enough of.
The Cherry Casino decks are also very versatile and practical, and the relatively standard card faces makes them ideal for card magic or for playing card games. Yet the striking card backs also makes them very appealing for cardists and collectors. This creates the ideal combination of something striking and something simple, which is the greatest strength of the Cherry Casino series. The vibrant and eye-catching colours, set them apart from the competition, and give them the magnetic quality that collectors look for, while they remain functional and suitable for a variety of uses. The first decks in the series are especially prized by collectors, since they are long out of print, and entered the market long before anybody realized how successful this series would become over time.
VirtuosoVirtuoso, commonly called The Virts, is a group of Singaporean cardists, originally founded by Huron Low and Kevin Ho. Other team members joined them over time, and they began releasing cardistry videos on their youtube channel. Around 2012 one of their cardistry videos went viral and was eventually featured on the Discovery Channel, which only increased the growing interest in their work, especially their creative card flourishing videos.
It was also around this time that The Virts came up with the idea of designing a deck of card that was specifically geared towards cardistry. They used a design that was strongly geometric in flavour, and where even the court cards and number cards were optimized for card flourishing, to enhance the visual aesthetic of cards in motion. Today it's quite common for a deck to be optimized for cardistry, and there's a ready market waiting to buy decks like this. But at the time this was a groundbreaking idea, and even somewhat of a financially risky one. But card flourishers welcomed the very first Virtuoso deck with open arms, and the deck proved to be more successful than ever imagined.
Since the release of their first deck, The Virts have continued to release follow-up decks on a somewhat regular basis. Typically each new release is accompanied by a flashy video that showcases the amazing cardistry of The Virts themselves, which is cleverly accentuated by their cardistry-friendly cards. Their signature geometric design is common to all of the decks released so far, and the eye-catching colours and consistently handling qualioty ensure that card flourishers love it. Recent times have seen the rate of their releases slow down, but news in 2020 about their latest deck - which is scheduled to come out in 2021 - generated a new wave of excitement. Loyalty to the Virtuoso brand and decks is evidenced by the fact that many people were ready to pre-order the new deck sight unseen.
Organic Playing CardsOne of the more fun entries in this list are the food-inspired decks created by Organic Playing Cards (OPC). This brand is originally the brainchild of Cameron Toner and Nathan Lex, who started OPC while they were in college, combining Cameron's love for card magic and Nathan's love for cardistry. The company has since evolved, and others have come on board as they grew. Their original goal was simply to produce a fun deck of banana-themed cards, now known as Peelers V1. Since then they've gone on to produce a cornucopia of fruit-inspired novelty decks.
The concept of what you can expect from an OPC deck is a simple one. Typically it's a deck that features two pieces of fruit on the card backs, some humorous changes to the court cards that incorporate that fruit, an adjusted colour scheme, and a fun take on the tuck box. For example, the Squeezers V1, V2, and V3 decks are orange, lemon, and grape-fruit themed retrospectively, and the tuck boxes are designed to look like juice boxes, complete with an ingredient list. The Snackers decks are themed on strawberries and blackberries, and come in a resealable package typical of a bag of candies, and even include an artificially added scent that smells like the fruit.
The latest additions to this popular series have included an avocado themed deck (Avocardos), and in somewhat of a departure from the usual fruit theme and look, a corn-themed harvest deck (Shuckers). So they are exploring new directions, but they haven't run out of fruit just yet, and I look forward to see what they come up with next.
What to buy, and how much to pay?Buying and pricing
In the end, you should buy what you like, not what other people tell you to like. But how much do these decks typically cost? Latest releases typically sell at retail price, and don't cost a fortune. Although in some cases, especially with in-demand brands like Fontaines, you have to be right at your computer when a new deck is released, and be among the first set of buyers who are fortunate enough process a purchase in the few minutes before they are sold out. Otherwise you'll have to rely on resellers, some of which can have inflated prices.
Older decks for virtually all of these series, however, tend to command much higher prices. This is simply a matter of supply and demand: as the number of collectors grows, more and more people want them, while the supply is limited, because the original decks are long out of print and out of stock at retailers. You'll have to rely on the secondary market to try to source these, and expect to dig deeper in your wallet if you want to get first and second edition decks of many of the above series.
Investing and re-selling
When collectors see some of these decks selling for over $100 on the secondary market, it can be tempting to think that it's a good idea to buy a stash of decks in the hope that you'll hit a jackpot with a brick of decsk that will be worth a bundle down the line. The reality is that this is hard to predict. When most of these decks were first released, nobody knew that they would become big hits over time. It's only as a series or brand generates momentum and establishes a loyal following, that the prices of the original editions start to rise.
For example, I have a Peelers V1 deck, and these are now worth up to US$150 today. At the time I picked it up, it was just a novelty deck from an unknown brand, and I used it as an everyday deck for card games and card magic. Who was to know the success that OPC would later become? Meanwhile I've just been using it casually for card games! Much the same is true for the very first Fontaines deck, which costs a fortune now, but at the time was really just an ordinary deck. The playing card market is fickle and future hits are almost impossible to predict. If you want to earn money, rather than gambling on playing cards, you're better off spending your time working for money at your regular day job.
Other popular series
Are there other series besides the ones covered above? For sure. Daniel Schneider's series of Black Roses deck also has its passionate collectors, as do the Golden Nugget decks, the Gemini Casino decks, and the NOC decks. The Planets series by Vanda was also popular for some time, but with the release of all the planets this is obviously now complete. There are also people who collect anything produced by a particular brand, such as Anyone Playing Cards. Perhaps even that new release you're thinking of purchasing will become the start of a successful new series or brand - you can never really tell!
Has the industry jumped the shark?More and more, faster and faster
In the first few years of the boom in the playing card market that was created by the arrival of crowdfunding around 2009, new releases were typically produced either as a mass market deck, or as a numbered limited edition. That seems to have changed in the last few years, and the number of permutations for a particular deck seems to be more than ever before. First of all we get recoloured versions of the same deck, multiple times over. Then in addition we get a numbered deck, and a gilded deck... and multiple combinations of all of these. It starts to become impossible for collectors to get a complete collection.
In addition, in some cases, a very limited edition of a popular series is produced at a high price tag, like the $75 Cherry Casino House Decks, putting it out of the reach of most collectors, except those with very deep pockets. In other cases, companies are releasing decks in different colours so fast (here's looking at you, Jerry's Nuggets), that collectors can hardly keep up. The inevitable question arises whether some of these developments are unhealthy.
How much is too much?
All this understandably makes some collectors begin to feel a little jaded, and wonder if some of these series have jumped the shark. Are some creators starting to take the mickey out of collectors, knowing that they will want to "collect 'em all", even if they have to spend ridiculous amounts to do so? Is this capitalism gone mad, and are producers becoming too motivated by trying to make big bucks?
If this trend continues, it can start to feel like price-gouging and greed, and creators run the risk of sucking the joy out of collecting, and losing their customers. All this means that producers have to be careful in the decisions they make about what they release, and not simply be motivated by making money.
Collect 'em all?
But there's a lesson in this for collectors too. It doesn't make sense to mindlessly collect every single thing. But if you do think carefully about what you want to collect, it can be a lot of fun to collect series like the ones covered here. By all means collect 'em! But maybe just not all of them. At least, not all the time.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and 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.