Interview with Playing Card Designer Lee McKenzie (Kings & Crooks)

Posted by Will Roya on

by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame

Who is Lee McKenzie?

British designer Lee McKenzie is a name that many people in the playing card industry might not immediately recognize, but that's only because most of the decks he has designed are more widely known for the brand they were published under: Ellusionist. Lee designed decks for Ellusionist for around five years, from 2008 to 2013, at a time when it was one of the biggest players in the industry, and just when custom decks were really starting to boom. 

You might recognize some of the decks he created, which include popular titles like Arcane, Artifice, Infinity, and Fathom. These designs were among the first non-Bicycle branded custom decks that entered into the mainstream, at a time when the playing card industry was really starting to take off, and it's Lee McKenzie's creativity that lies behind the success that these Ellusionist decks had. Though his name might not be well known, he is in fact a leading figure from an important time.

In 2013 Lee decided to stop freelancing under the Ellusionist banner, and set out on his own by successfully using crowdfunding to launch his Empire Playing Cards deck, and subsequently its follow-up, the Empire Bloodlines series. He has since launched a brand new website, which serves as the online portal for his lifestyle brand Kings & Crooks. It features cutting edge graphic design and stunning visuals, and includes branded items like playing cards, clothing, and more.

Empire Playing Cards deck

Lee's own life journey illustrates his qualities as a risk-taker, artist, and explorer, who is willing to take bold steps into new territory as an independent designer and creator. He's also a perfectionist, and invests an enormous amount of himself when creating a deck of playing cards, and indeed into everything he does. His love for playing cards began with an interest in magic at a young age, and he was able to combine this with his skills in art and design, and his interest in the visual story-telling worlds created by movies, music, and photography. Equipped with this passion and these skills, Lee's design career has produced many popular playing cards.

With his proven track record, credentials as a successful designer, and his fascinating life story, Lee McKenzie is well placed to share some fascinating observations not just about how he makes custom playing cards, but about the playing card industry as a whole, and perhaps more importantly, about an attitude to life. I'm very pleased that he was willing to share some of his thoughts for our readers. As always, Lee has a lot to say, and it's worth reading carefully and reflecting on. 

Lee McKenzie

The Interview

For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background? What do you do for a day job and/or what are your other interests?

Today, after many years of building and sacrifice, I'm fortunate enough to be able to work on my passion full time. I devote every second I can to designing the kind of playing cards I wished existed and sharing them with magicians, collectors and card lovers like myself, all under my company, Kings & Crooks.

I was originally born in Manchester, UK and growing up I was always fascinated by the cinematic worlds of movies, art and just getting lost in my imagination. Alongside martial arts, ninjas and spy movies, my curiosity for the mysterious and doing the impossible naturally led me to a huge interest in magic and playing cards at around 10 years old. An addiction to practicing and learning magic for endless hours each day became a big part of my early teens back in the 90's. That's when books, a mirror or face-to-face were the only ways you could learn anything.

I first went to the Blackpool magic convention in '96 with my best friend and fellow magician, and that's when I realized just how many other people love this stuff like we did. Whenever I saw a Bicycle or Tally-Ho deck (instead of the crappy paper playing cards that creased and tore easily), I knew I was in good company. Every week we'd go to Affleck's Palace in Manchester on the third floor to a little magic shop where we could watch and learn from some much older and more experienced magicians (Ian and Mark) who had a huge impact on us. There was also Mushy Pea Juggling shop that had an awesome magic shop at the back (run by a guy called Simon). It was such an exciting time, constantly learning the secrets of this art I'd come to love. It was clear though that my focus was on playing cards almost exclusively. Something about them just felt simple and right but also powerful. A small normal object but that offered endless techniques, effects, skills to practice and amazing secrets to learn. A world of impossibility made real, right in your hands. I couldn't resist.

From a young age, I had always been into drawing too, and that continued with me throughout school and college where I developed my "professional" career as a graphic designer. I worked in the post production industry mostly, designing motion graphics and highly visual design for DVD movie menus and TV graphics amongst other projects. That was where I could combine my love for design and visual storytelling with movies to create high impact and striking imagery to bring the viewer into another world and make them feel something. That's mainly what floats my boat.

When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?

I was always drawn to expressing myself outside of the confines of a traditional job, and so was often coming up with side projects to keep me stimulated ( one of which was a t-shirt brand ). Magic and playing cards were still a heavy part of my life and I'd continued practicing and learning from 11 yrs old to this day. Around 2007, I was hit with a spark of inspiration when I saw Ellusionist's Vintage 1800 decks and some kind of gut alarm bell started ringing inside. Given my love for graphic design, playing cards and magic, I felt compelled to start designing my own. Like a green light came on and the gates swung wide open just for me. During travel to Rome, inspired by some of the old-world gothic architecture I'd seen, I began work on my first deck.

A year later, I had met my Australian girlfriend in Edinburgh and we eventually both decided to set off to travel the world. I spent a good chunk of change to get some decks printed in the US of my first concept, then I sent it to the CEO of Ellusionist, Brad Christian. I had dreamed my deck would be put alongside their own and help me bring the deck to other magicians via awesome brand I really admired. Brad simply responded with "All I can say is wow, I'll be in touch soon" and my heart skipped a beat, I was thrilled! With excitement coursing through my veins, our travels began and so did an opportunity to become the signature deck designer for Ellusionist. I initially wanted to launch that first deck of mine with them, and be part of their offerings, but they offered me to run with another idea they had and so I thought that would still be a great way to go. It was an amazing experience with great people and I truly felt like I was a part of something that was so right for me. 

Playing Card Decks

After your success with Ellusionist, how did you come to start your own playing card company?

4 years, 5 decks and 15 countries travelled later, after the loss of my Grandfather, it became extremely clear that life was too short to put off doing the things you want. I decided I needed to realize my original dream to create my very own decks. To "build my own dreams instead of being hired to build someone else's" as the quote goes. It was a big risk as I didn't feel I could do both, so I left Ellusionist, determined but hugely under-prepared financially. I designed and launched my first deck on Kickstarter called Empire Playing Cards.

The dream came true. It became a humbling success supported by almost 1000 card lovers from around the world. That was the next green light I needed and I couldn't believe it was actually happening.

From then I decided to officially launch my own brand to continue sharing my vision and art for designing playing cards with all the magicians, card collectors and card lovers like me. Kings & Crooks was born and since then it's been what I've been working on every single day. The journey here has had so many challenges and fraught with sacrifice (as anything worth doing is), but I still think the risk was worth it and hope to keep pushing for my mission to inspire others with my art. 

What is the significance of your brand name, Kings & Crooks?

The name Kings & Crooks itself is a reflection of the mindset it takes to create your own path in life, take risks and do what matters to you most. Even if that means breaking some rules in order to make your own, to live your own life and tell your own stories.

It also relates to both the magician performing in the spotlight and the sleight of hand artist honing his deception skills under the cover of shade at the table. Magicians and mechanics, card men and con men, believer and deceivers.

The imaginative and cinematic-like images these words conjure up in your mind is one of the big inspirations behind my work. I love to take those movie scene style visions and try to capture that feeling and put it on the back of a card. I always believe art should say something to you, to your eyes, your heart or your soul. It's a vehicle for expression. You can either contribute to the rest of the noise in the world, or say something that's worth hearing.

Playing Cards Kings & Crooks

What other interests have shaped and helped you as a designer?

While my focus is primarily on Kings & Crooks, travel is a huge passion too. After selling everything I owned and leaving the UK in 2007, we went through poverty to paradise and back over the next few years. From traveling across south-east Asia, living on an almost deserted Thai island for months while freelancing and worrying about where my next dollar would come from, to sailing the Pacific to remote paradises, coast-to-coast USA and living in a downtown Vancouver penthouse. Amazing experiences of both ups and downs. The swings, both emotional and mental have been huge, but I believe travel is one of the absolute best things you can do for yourself in this life.

I also used to mix and scratch (DJ-ing), break dance (a little) and big into martial arts. I love a lot of music, awesome beats and sound that transports you somewhere. Photography goes without saying, anything visual (art, design etc) always captures my interest.

I love learning about psychology, how the brain works, everything to do with human behavior and the 'whys and hows' of life's mysteries (which makes sense why magic is such an allure for me). I guess advertising and copywriting also falls into that category, art with words and pictures that have a purpose in the art of influencing our behavior. Entrepreneurship is also a huge element, learning how to give your art to people, doing what you love and be able to support yourself in return. Learning, in general, is addictive. I love movies too. Martial arts.

And one of my favorite things is just going outside looking, walking, being IN the world makes me feel good. I'm pretty deep about a lot of things, which has it's positives and negatives too. But I'm mostly very easy going, but very passionate about things that really matter to me, as you'll probably hear in this interview. But sometimes you just gotta breathe, smile and move on. Life's just one big ride, it's up to you if it's a good one or not.

How would you see yourself as a designer today, compared to when you started? 

Every new deck design has its challenges. It's one huge puzzle that can be solved in 1000 different ways. Using your experience and eye for balance, composition, detail, and style you just have to experiment and try to make something "feel right". That's the best way I can put it. The more design you do, the more you flex your "feel" muscle and get better at making choices that serve you instead of detracting from your overall vision for a deck. I often like to tell such striking visual stories with my design and so it often calls for a lot of detail, which can very quickly become a monster if not tamed. However, executing simple designs is also its own skill. It's hard to do well, and its very easy to do it in a lack-lustre fashion. But as this is all art, it's subjective, so anything can appeal to anyone.

However for myself, I'm still battling against my need to give people as much value as possible, which indulges my perfection and can end up taking over a year to finish a design, versus, trying not to get so lost down the rabbit hole that the deck is never finished, never gets released and I never get to eat. I love the process so much I hang in there for way longer than I should. I'd say the difference between me then and me now is becoming wiser to recognize that making an amazing design that I'm happy with is important, but it's also equally important to not indulge my perfectionism too much in order to get the deck out there. As Seth Godin would say, "Ship it. If it's perfect, you've waited too long". It's a constant battle between the inner artist and entrepreneur, but if I don't get better at that, I won't be able to continue to support myself doing this and will have to change course.

What motivates you as a designer?

My primary motivation is always because I love playing cards, magic and design, and want to share my ideas with our community to make what we love even more enjoyable. For me money is not a primary driving factor at all, but it absolutely has to be taken into the equation and balanced well with time if I want to build a life doing this. And I do. It's not just a job to me or something someone else has hired me to do. It's a very personal part of me, which is also why I get irritated when I see decks that in my view are more about people trying to grab money than doing what it takes to contribute something great. It's injustice, a lack of respect and I despise it. But again, it's art and subjective. What do I know and what makes me think I know the reasons behind someone else's decisions? I don't, but I know what it takes to design, so when I see someone taking shortcuts or disrespecting the art or community with just a plain lack of effort, it gets to me a little. To me it's like a bully getting away with stamping all over the little guy, and I hate that. Ultimately it drives me to do better for our community, create more beautiful things to drown out the noise. You can only control your own thoughts and actions, so I'll just try to focus my attention there instead of trying to change the world.

Truth be told, variety is the spice of life and if all decks that existed were only ones that I liked, it would get pretty boring after a while. That's the flipside. Just like if all there was in the world was light, never darkness, we'd never really value it because it's all we know. There's nothing to compare it to. It's only because darkness exists that we can actually appreciate the light. You need both to give value to either.

So all in all, after my initial emotional responses, my logical side keeps me sane and I'm fine with it in the grand scheme of things. No matter the result of a piece of art or a deck, especially created by the individual not a big business, it's not easy to stand out there and be judged. To go through the process and actually get your art made, I have nothing but admiration and respect for people doing that, regardless of what I think of the art itself. The act of creating takes courage, and above all the fact it's being made at all makes me so happy! I wish more people would.

Playing Cards

What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?

What I enjoy most is engulfing myself in lots of materials, research and inspiration around a chosen design. Music, the feeling, the movie that plays in my head, they all spark off a style and visual direction I want to inject into a design. I love being in THAT world and trying to do it justice throughout an entire deck. When you hold the final deck, I want people to feel exactly how I felt when living and breathing this idea while creating it. That's what I feel could be something that may set my work apart. It's not just a deck to me, it's an experience you can become a part of when you hold it in your hand and when done well, it's one that's executed with the utmost care and attention. That all flows through every choice that goes into making the final deck.

The actual design stage is a battle. A long hard fight to chisel out your vision. It's a tough process and takes a lot to get through. That's the journey, the zone. And I hang in there because I love the challenge. Having a vision for what you want is one way to keep pushing and refining to try and uncover the design at the end. That's when you look at it and say "THAT'S IT!!". At that point, I see it's all worth it, and I hope everyone else can feel just how much goes into it too. Until then, it's a battle of creativity and discovery to unearth a vision that fits and bring it into focus.

How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?

It's hard to nail down one particular method. It's not a process. No guide, not for me anyways. But there are definite things that spark off glimmers of ideas in the mind and over time things form and something begins to manifest. Inspiration can come from absolutely anywhere. I always hate those answers when I read them in interviews like this, but it's 100% true. A piece of music in a movie, an emotion, a photograph, pure imagination, a word, a person. The way something smells feels - it's endless.

But by far for me, it's visual inspiration that speaks to me most, then audio. I'm a very sensual person, but mostly visual, to the point of making movies or trailers in my head of my deck (or anything for that matter) and just watch them and wonder how I can re-create that visual experience and feeling. I'd love to be able to produce the kind of movies I see in my mind ... maybe someday I'll find a way to make that a part of Kings & Crooks. Being just one person, managing time is tough and you have to do it wisely.

How many decks have you designed so far, and which of these have been your most popular and successful designs? 

Over the last 11 years up until 2018, I've designed approximately 14 decks. Some have yet to see the light. Some I created for Ellusionist (Arcane, Artifice, Infinity, Fathom) and the rest I created for my brand Kings & Crooks, which are the Empire Limited Editions, Empire Bloodlines in royal blue, emerald green and Limited Edition black/gold. Then my most recent deck, Outlaw, a badass design in original black and white and the Outlaw Hell Riders edition which is a heavily distressed, lo-down and dirty Limited deck (that's also fully marked).

The Arcane deck I created for Ellusionist was one of the very first completely full custom decks that had been created at the time (approx 2009). Until then, almost all decks were just simple re-colors or treatments using standard Bicycle faces and backs. Soon after Arcane launched we saw the surge of more and more custom decks hitting the market, which actually led the way for the United States Playing Card Co to open a dedicated custom cards part of their business which has continued to explode to this day. I am so proud to have had the opportunity to work alongside Ellusionist and take on their first signature decks. Being a part of the pioneering custom card movement was such an exciting and fulfilling part of my life. I only hope to continue pushing the playing card world forward and keep giving my all to create cards people love.

The first deck of my own was Empire, an obsessively detailed and ornate design which, at the time, was something very different and unique to what existed out there. Since then its style and original features seem to have inspired other decks that followed, which I'm flattered by. I think Empire has been my first and most successful deck to date. Now sold out and a rare find, they've been seen to command a price tag of $150 or more in aftermarket sales (!) which is mind-blowing to me. I still receive emails from people 5 years since it launched, asking how they can get a hold of them. It's such an honor and wish I had more to give. But I guess the limited nature is what contributes to the value.

The follow up to Empire, the Empire Bloodlines edition was also extremely well received. However it wasn't just a simple re-color, I redesigned the entire deck including backs, courts, everything. I wanted it to visually feel part of the Empire family but also have its very own bold style, which people seemed to really like. I think it would be a long time before I ever released another Empire deck, if at all. I have so many ideas I want to get out, and so many ways to I want to try and push and innovate. I just need to hurry up!

Which deck (or decks) in your portfolio of created designs is your favourite, and why?

I'd have to say, at the time of making each one, they were my favorite. Once you get absorbed in a project you're passionate about and managed to see your vision through to the end, it can't help but be your new favorite. And that happens each time. So far I've designed a bunch for Ellusionist and bunch for Kings & Crooks.

Among the Ellusionist decks, Infinity and Artifice were my favorites by far. Both because of this secret other-world story. Artifice specifically because of the association with that shadowy side of sleight of hand, the hustler at the table, the deceiver sharpening their skills. Also running in line with Daniel Madison's narration [for the first Artifice deck trailer] in relation to his own life events in deception, I think that deck definitely holds a special place for me. It's the Crooks side of Kings & Crooks. Among my own, I'd say they're all my favorites, but for unique reasons.

Empire Playing Cards

How would you describe the style of your playing card decks? Are there any particular features or characteristics of your decks that you hope people will notice and appreciate, or help make your decks different from the many others out there?

I would say the style of my decks is very much about telling a story. I like to think each back design and its detail emits its own energy. One of the key visual aspects of my style so far is the sheer amount of attention I like to pay to details. It's the emotion and the way art makes you feel that I find so appealing to myself. The ability to transport someone to another place in their mind just by witnessing the art. That's what I find I'm always drawn to achieving. In summary, I'd say my style is cinematic, striking visual storytelling with a soul.

Like many creators, my art is extremely personal to me, I take an insane amount of care over the details and ideas behind creating my decks. So much so the process has often taken me up to a year or more to complete. If I keep going at that rate, I won't be able to build my life around doing what I love. So while trying to improve my decision making to become more effective at hitting my vision to eventually be able to bring out at least 4 decks a year, I will still wholeheartedly be committing to the same high-quality standards I set for myself with regards to both technical execution and vision.

Every time I see a deck that looks like it took 5 mins or so to design but everyone raves about, it's usually because the person behind them has worked hard to achieve a following based on their other valuable traits (card skill, cardistry etc), that people want to own a deck that the person they admire has made. And that's great, we need more people stepping up to express themselves and opening up this card world to inspire as many people as possible. It's like fashion in that sense. Stick a Gucci logo on a t-shirt and suddenly it's a luxury item worth $300 for a t-shirt. Or when a music artist starts a clothing brand or perfume, it's the same thing. Fans want what their heroes have, no matter how much or little thought has gone into making the item.

I'm thrilled the card world is growing so fast, and I just hope I can continue to give my all for those who love the kind of art I create. All I'd ask is: don't contribute to the noise, do what matters to you first and not for the money, and then no matter if is an incredibly detailed masterpiece or an elegantly simple design, it deserves to be out in the world..

Which printer do you use to make your playing cards, and why? What has your experience with them been like?

I have worked with both The United States Playing Card Co and a Taiwanese company represented in the US by Expert and Legends Playing Card Co.

I wanted to work with USPC from the very beginning because all of my magic and card learning life I have been using their decks. Not only do they hold that special part of my youth and are a world standard in quality cards, they actually deserve to be in that position because their product is very, very good. However, they're a big machine, and like a big business everything is systematised, so it's very difficult to implement innovative or quick tests to try an idea out. It's not as nimble as a smaller operation, but I think they are making steps towards this flexibility, but very slowly.

One of the things that KK in Taiwan or Cartamundi in Belgium has over USPCC, is their militant adhesion to strict registration in printing. There's very minimal to zero movements when the inks hit the decks, so you don't have a back design jumping all over the place when you riffle through them. Also, smaller white borders can be executed to precision, allowing a design to get more creative without worry about getting the design cut off etc. USPCC do a fantastic job, it's just not as consistently tight as it could be, that's all.

Also, the blades used to cut USPCC decks have not always produced the cleanest cuts. My Limited Edition Empire Bloodlines black and gold deck has almost glass-like edges, smooth as anything, and it's consistent from deck to deck. I've also had the same types of decks from USPCC, but the variation from rough to smooth is more frequent. However, I don't have any knowledge of their operations and how they are set up, as to why doing this may be more complicated than it seems. They've been around for a long time and all I can think of is that change happens slowly in a place that big. And rocking the boat for small things like that, although making the product consistently better, might be quite a feat to achieve for them given their current set up and machinery. I just don't know.

When it comes to stock, USPCC again has long reigned supreme, and with good reason. However with Legends, Expert and Cartamundi now constantly evolving and tweaking their stocks, things are getting very interesting. I known of Cartamundi since I first started practicing card magic in the early '90's, so I'm glad to see they're taking more notice of the cardistry/magic world and trying to up the game to bring a more quality product to our community. I've been extremely happy with both USPCC and Legends stocks, and will always keep a lookout for evolutions out there to help bring more value to my supporters. 


What are some of the easiest, and what are some of the hardest parts of the process in making a deck of custom playing cards?

To be completely honest, I find the hardest part of designing a deck of cards is that once you've decided on a style for your court cards, you have to roll that out over 12 other detailed illustrations, customizing each one to not just fit each court, but also to fit the established style you've set out in the first place. I like the new, fresh, exciting nature of a black canvas or new task, style or idea. So, rolling out the almost identical style out over 12 other cards is brain numbing. For me, this is the most tedious and gruelling part of the process. I find everything else about creating a deck extremely satisfying and enjoyable, apart from rolling out a chosen style across 12 other similar but very different (in the way they're built) court cards.

I actually love the standard faces we've come to expect in a regular deck. The European descended highly stylised but simple and iconic courts. Coming from a magic background, the standard deck and similar cohesive styles give off a "real" deck vibe, not a suspicious or cheap childish angle unless you're actually going for that. Personally, I always like to try and design court cards that actually look like they belong and stay away from getting too colorful and cartoonish as they remind me of cheap licensed cards with famous cartoon characters on them. Unless of course, that is exactly what you're going for with the deck, but this style hasn't been something I'm drawn to. But, I am so happy once I've actually put in the time to finish the courts and they look exactly how I'd like, it's a great moment.

However, I do understand that for those people who create decks and don't exactly have the skills to go fully custom, opting to stick with the standard courts but change a few colors is always an easy way to get by, but it also shows. There's somewhat of an expectation these days I believe, that everything needs to be custom for it to be of the highest value. Like I said, though, I don't have much of an issue with standard courts, as long as it was an intentional and fitting decision with the rest of the deck, and not a lazy/cheaper option by the producer or creator. But hey, it's all about enjoying life at the end of the day. Take things too seriously and the only person you're punishing is yourself. Just do what's right for your deck and I'll do what I think is right for mine.

What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realized more?

I don't think there's anything I wished consumers realized more. Having to convince someone of something, or trying to make someone realize something they don't already know only seems to serve a purpose of a creator wanting to convince someone to buy your creation. Or at least value it more, which may as well be the same thing.

Personally, I think there are a lot of "artistically challenged" decks out there. And that's ok. It's a free world, people are free to do what they chose, and I support anyone's right to do exactly that. But for me, one of the main driving forces is to create work that actually enhances and raises the level of quality and expression in the world of playing cards. It's something that matters to me a great deal and it actually causes me pain to see what seem to be half-assed decks out there, or money grabbing ploys to take advantage without having the guts to do something that contributes less to the noise and more to raise the art for us all.

BUT - and it's a big but - at the end of the day, all art is subjective. What one person likes, another could hate. That's why there is no real right or wrong way, no matter what my gut or my eyes tell me. I save that judgment and guidance for my own work. Outside of myself, it's just a collection of people expressing themselves in different ways, and there's not a damn thing wrong with that. However, in the art world, there are pieces that sell for millions vs those that sell for hundreds, or nothing. Someone somewhere has to draw a line to enable curators and galleries to justify their existence, but how that line is drawn is the question. Is it all pretense and illusions of value, or is there a very real way to evaluate work and a decisive way to know one piece is of more value than another? While its true beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that eye can also be the subject of brand or celebrity influence, trend, and marketing that makes your decision of what beauty is for you, without you realizing. But does that matter? If the choice makes us smile, I'd argue it doesn't, whether that's actually the truth or not. But in that case, only the best marketers and promoters are relied on to draw the line for you. For me it takes months and months, often hundreds of hours to execute my vision according to my personal tastes, but does that make it better than someone who took 2 minutes? Technically maybe yes, but artistically not necessarily.

I'd say any artistic project backed by real passion, an unwavering commitment to a vision and a skilled, thoughtful, high-quality execution is a project worthy of anyone's attention. I just get the feeling that sometimes the opposite is what happens. And what you bring in brand-focused celebrities putting their logos on decks, they're almost an exception in my eyes. They've built their brand and put a tonne of work in doing it, and then decide to release a deck with their logo. I don't mind it at all, and I don't really categorize those decks in the same way. As long as you're busting your ass doing what matters to you on your journey that's what matters. A logo deck is just an extension of that person's offerings from all the work they've done to be able to get here, and it makes sense from a "merchandise" point of view for fans.

In the bigger picture, life is nothing but change, and having it any other way would probably disrupt the fabric of what it means to live in such a diverse world, no matter if you feel it would be a better place with or without certain things or not. Or things done the way you think they should be. It's good to know what works for you, but what you resist, persists, so don't worry about things that don't marry with your point of view. Let it go and just focus on your thing, your art, your people, and enjoy life.

Playing Card Deck

The playing card industry has changed rapidly over the last decade. Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards that we are seeing today? 

Above all, it's great that it's become much more popular and people can connect and share their passion with others around the world. However, I feel the level for quality and creativity has become a little diluted as a result, or better said, I'm not as excited about what I see around these days. As I've rambled on about before, art is subjective, but it's clear to see not everyone has a focus of contributing a high-quality execution of their vision, or said another way, aren't experienced in how to do that. Art and creating is fun, it's expression, so it all belongs. But for me and what I like to see, it's becoming rarer to see exciting decks. I feel there's a responsibility to produce quality, to push the art and give people something to be excited about, especially if you're asking for their hard earned money in return.

Maybe that's a limiting belief of mine and maybe I'm fearful of doing any less than that for some reason. It's a lot of pressure to keep up with such standards, and maybe that stops me from being a little more free and fun with my ideas. I've seen some very minimal and lack-luster decks that at first I didn't like at all, but then they grew on me and my perspective changed to embrace the fun expression side too. Decks that you'd enjoy and change like you would your hair style or a new shirt or sneakers. Does it have to be so heavy and focused on excellence and pushing the limits all of the time? What about the light and fun ideas, made just because. Something to think about anyway. 

What impact has crowdfunding like Kickstarter had on the custom playing card industry? And what has your own experience with this been like?

Crowdfunding is an incredible way for people without much or any money to actually get their design made, which is amazing. Without crowdfunding, I would have had to take a bank loan or something to get me started. Eventually, if Kickstarter didn't come around, that's exactly what I would have done.

Before Kickstarter, that higher barrier to entry helped to make sure if you were going to make something it had better be great. Now it's a free for all, which invites just as much noise as it does quality. So it's hit and miss, but it's here and things are only going to get crazier as time goes on.

There's also a conversation here about marketing and gathering your tribe to support your visions, and that makes a big difference once you launch. It's modern marketing at work and things like Instagram follows or YouTube subscribers get you a lot of attention, so when or if you decide to launch a deck, you have many folks who you can share you new product with and who may jump on to support you, which is truly amazing.

Where do you think the custom playing card industry will go from here, and what innovations or changes might we see in the coming years?

As the younger guys and girls are coming up, getting into magic and cardistry, and with technology only getting more and more "social", I see it getting more and more popular. With that, I imagine there'll always be a bunch new decks and cardist popping up and things will get even wilder. But hopefully there'll still emerge a solid bunch of creators from that, continuing to do great work that keeps us excited. 

What do your family and friends think of your love for designing playing cards? How do you explain your work to non-enthusiasts of playing cards?

My friends and family are hugely supportive in what I do. New non-magic or card people are often surprised to hear about what I do. But ultimately by bringing my own excitement to the forefront, regardless of what they think of what I do, they at least recognize I love doing it. To make a living doing what you love and from anywhere in the world is still quite an insane thing to be possible, but it's more and more common these days.

Everyone is where they are in life because of every single decision they ever made to get there. Their perspective, outlook, mindset and vision for themselves and life. If you don't like where you are in life, you have to start making different decisions. Do the work to find your path, believe in yourself, keep taking steps no matter how small to see where it goes, and it may just surprise you.

Playing Cards

Do you belong to any playing card organizations, or connect with other designers, either online or in any other way?

I don't belong to any organizations or connect with other designers much. Since coming to Australia after traveling, I've been trying to start my business and working for years to get it rolling. Working for yourself has its benefits, but when you don't have to go out to work or have teammates etc to work with, it's pretty lonely. Since leaving the UK in 2008, traveling and ultimately trying to develop Kings & Crooks, it doesn't bring too many opportunities to meet people when your always a stranger in a new land and work so much. I love spending real time with like-minded people, and digital tech/social media doesn't really do it for me.

However I do occasionally speak/skype with other creators (not exclusively designers though) who've become friends in the magic and playing card world. Whether it's entrepreneurial stuff, advice or just catching up, it's always good to have another trusted ear to bounce things off. That's what I miss most of the traditional job setting, as I like being around good energy and people, but while also being able to focus on my work. Maybe a co-work space might be a good idea.

What advice would you give someone just starting to collect playing cards today? What do you consider to be important elements of a quality design, and what they should look for in a quality deck of playing cards?

I wouldn't class myself as a collector, as to me that implies grabbing every deck out there through fear of missing out. Although I definitely like to get my hands on any new decks that please my eyes, so you could say I'm an extremely picky collector. To be honest, it's difficult to say what a person should look out for, it's just so personal. And everyone's tastes are different.

What I look out for is a very good execution of design, style, composition and color, throughout the deck and tuck box. It's difficult to put it into words as my eyes just know what to look for and I know if I like something in 2 seconds. But my tastes are exactly that, mine, and what I see as "good" is based on an almost intuitive sense that's been honed and refined with my own preferences in mind over years.

In terms of actual deck quality when using it, I like the classic (Bicycle) or premium (Bee) stocks print on by the U.S. Playing Card Co. Also, Expert Playing Cards and Legends Playing Cards use a Taiwan factory and have some great cut and feeling decks. Cartamundi in Belgium, a brand that I've known since childhood has now started producing a very nice Linen B9 and Touch stock aimed at magicians and cardists, which is also nice.

Do you have any recent, current, or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

I do have an upcoming deck I'm releasing that's a completely new style, and I'm absolutely thrilled with it. It's also using an amazing traditional printing technique on the tuck box which will make it such an appealing and luxurious piece of work. I don't want to ruin the surprise so if any readers are interested in hearing when it's released, you can sign up to my email list to get notified first at

Also, I'll soon be releasing the Warrior Card Armour at long last. It's project that started in 2014 but I've faced significant challenges in bringing to life. The years of sacrifice will be worth it as it looks amazing. Half card clip, half battle armour, all beast. Again, feel free to sign up to be the first to know when it launches.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about designing playing cards, or about playing cards?

I'll just leave it at this, and it's nothing to do with design or cards. I believe you should earn your existence. Dive deep into yourself and ask the hard questions. Who are you, what's the truth? What fears control you and how can you overcome them? Do you know what makes you come alive?! Then try to do more of that. Decide what or who you want to be in life, take action and be a good one. Be a kind one. Give your all to yourself, your passion and anyone you encounter along the way. We're all here on this little blue rock together, and we can either make things better or make them worse for each other.

Above all, don't forget that there are no rules or set paths in life, only what's common and uncommon. Test your comfort zones, invite a little risk, play a little dangerously and do it with a smile with people you care about. At the end of the day you're not going to be laying on your death bed wishing you earned more money or worked longer. You're going to wish you had spent more time doing things you love, the amazing things and the everyday things too, making memories with the people you care about.

Don't get too focused on where you want to go and end up missing where you are. It's ok to know where you want to go, but getting there is made of here and nows. Enjoy the ride, learn to ride the storm of life. The only constant thing is change, the ups and downs are the journey, don't wait for them to pass to be happy. Embrace change quickly and kindly. Let go quickly of the negative so it doesn't blind you from the next horizon, because ultimately, life is either a great adventure or nothing at all. Stay bold and enjoy the journey, it's all we have.

Lee McKenzie

Final Thoughts

It's not hard to see that Lee McKenzie has very high ideals. But he's also not afraid to hold himself to these high standards, and as a result he has produced some very high quality decks of playing cards that are highly regarded by collectors. For Lee, designing a deck of cards is intensely personal, mainly because of how much he gives himself to the process, and invests in terms of the physical and mental resources required to accomplish it. Not only does he have the skills needed to create art that is unique and lasting, but he also has the passion and personal drive needed to make this all happen. It's evident from the quality of his designs and also from the quality of his website design that he's absolutely committed to excellence and perfectionism in every respect. His own success speaks volumes, not just with the impressive decks of playing cards he created for Ellusionist, but also with his later designs under his own label. 

This positive attitude also embodies what Lee's lifestyle brand is all about, and his vision about this is carefully articulated along these lines with all the philosophical mottos and quotes you'll find scattered throughout his website. The theme behind much of Lee's mission is about carving your own mark on the world, telling your own stories, and forging your own path. The Kings & Crooks brand is about having the courage to take risks, refusing to follow the herd, and creating your own pathway in life. Kings & Crooks will especially be a welcome home to those who feel the magnetic pull of Lee's invitation for curious adventurers seeking a road less travelled, and willing to play by their own rules and to live to tell their own stories.

But it's not just Lee's work that gives a positive message, because his own personal journey is a perfect case study that confirms his outlook on life. Despite experiencing loss and hardship, he has chosen to respond by embarking on a journey forwards, forging a new path that uses adversity as a stepping stone to growth rather than becoming stagnant. This is the sentiment that also runs deep in the veins of the fine playing cards that he has produced. If you're a connoisseur or an explorer at heart, you're likely to see the appeal of Lee McKenzie's work, and appreciate how his contribution to the playing card industry ahead of the crowdfunding era not only contributed to its momentum during a critical phase of its development, but how his products also are an inspiration for people to live freely and to excel with confidence. 

Clearly Lee has invested an enormous amount of passion and time in creating his playing card designs, many of which have been forged in the furnace of personal trial and tragedy, and what has emerged is something truly special. The results speak for themselves, and the fact that his decks have been received so enthusiastically and are highly regarded by the discerning collector confirms that the investment in time and effort has produced the quality he advocates and strives for. Many of his decks have an epic feel, capturing something of a grand story, which is communicated via intricate details, and they embody important attributes such as beauty and style.

But undoubtedly Lee McKenzie isn't the only one with high standards. If you are a discerning consumer that appreciates class, and can also appreciate something of Lee's important contribution to the playing card industry and the quality of his work, then definitely check out some of his decks to see if these will add some welcome sophistication to your collection!

Lee McKenzie playing cards

Where to get them? You'll find some of Lee McKenzie's newer designs here on playingcarddecks, including Empire Bloodlines (Emerald Green & Royal Blue). Many of the designs he produced for Ellusionist are also available, including InfinityArcane White, and Artifice, and Fathom.

Also his newest deck Outlaw was just released and now available.

Also check out Lee McKenzie's official website (, or stay in touch with his projects on Kickstarter (link) and social media (FacebookInstagramTwitterYouTube).

Playing Card Decks

About the writerEndersGame 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.

Last update date: 04/07/20


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