by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
With the wide range of custom playing cards on the market nowadays, the incredible selection can be intimidating and even overwhelming for buyers. Where do you start? What kind of deck should you buy? Is there really any difference between one and the other?
The short answer is that yes, there can be big differences in quality between one deck and the other. To some extent, your choice of playing cards is always going to be subjective, because what one person likes, another might not. There is definitely a matter of personal taste that is involved, especially when it comes to the visuals and aesthetics of a design. Your choice also should depend on what you are going to use your playing cards for. Are you going to be using your deck for playing card games, performing card magic, doing cardistry, or are you just a collector after something that looks unique?
But in addition to this, there are a whole lot of other things to look at when choosing which deck to buy. So here is a list of some of the things that you should take into consideration when selecting a quality deck of playing cards.
Quality Tuck Box
Your first glimpse of a deck of cards is always going to be the tuck box, and here are some things to look for:
Durability: The tuck box is important first of all because it serves the practical purpose of housing your deck of cards, so you don't want something flimsy. You want something where you can open and close the flap easily, in order to retrieve and store the cards. And you want to be confident that your precious playing cards will be safely housed inside the tuck box while it is on the shelf, or while it is in transit from one place to another. Fortunately, most publishers of playing cards nowadays create quality tuck boxes that are durable and functional, so there is little to worry about in that regard.
Aesthetics: But just as important as durability is the aesthetic and visual statement that a tuck box makes. The tuck box is your very first encounter with a deck, so it is crucial for shaping that initial impression. Naturally, you want that impression to be a good one! Tuck boxes become their own works of art, and there are many superlative examples of luxurious and quality tuck boxes, that are a visual pleasure on the shelf or on the game table. The decks I have on display in my room are nearly always those with impressive tuck boxes, because these stunning pieces of art make great decorative elements, and immediately exude quality and style.
Art and Design: The tuck box also gives new potential for artistic creativity, because it means that in addition to the cards themselves, the artist or designer has an additional canvas to work with, namely the tuck box itself. The style of the artistic design will often make a statement that is closely linked to the theme of the deck, and designers will often put a lot of thought into this design. This will often include not only the front, back, and sides, but even the insides of the box! Full interior printing is certainly something to look out for, and high end decks will usually feature printing on both the outside and inside of the box.
Embossing: With the help of modern technology, we are seeing tuck boxes today reaching new heights of innovation. A good quality deck of playing cards is almost certain to have embossing on the tuck box. This is where part of the lettering or image is raised against the background, to create a visual element of depth, simultaneously adding a tactile feel.
Foil Accents: Besides embossing, it is also common for higher end decks to feature foil accents. For a classy look, gold and silver foil are the colors of choice, but sometimes creators will experiment with other colored foil, including red, blue, and even black. These give parts of the tuck box an instant reflective shine, creating a very luxurious look. For a duller shine, metallic inks can be used in place of foil, but there's no doubt that gold and silver foil accents are hard to beat for the ultimate look of luxury, especially when combined with embossing.
Innovation:, Besides the use of metallic foil and embossing, another technique to look for on a tuck box is the use of iridescent colors or UV spot printing, which can add further visual and even tactile elements by a secondary printing process that applies an extra layer of gloss on selected parts of a card. Some publishers are even innovating with the use of fabric and embroidery on their tuck boxes. You'll also come across decks with a custom die-cut tuck box, which effectively creates a small window that allows you to see and feel part of the card backs inside the box.
Seal: A final element to watch for is a custom seal. Not every deck of custom playing cards will have a seal, but this is almost expected as standard in a good quality custom deck. In nearly all cases, this will feature customized artwork that fits with the theme or concept of the deck. In some cases, these seals will be individually numbered. Typically this is done with smaller print runs and with limited edition decks. Having numbered seals almost always increases the desirability and collectability of a deck, and you can expect to pay more for such a deck.
Quality Card Design
We know exactly what to expect when we open a standard deck of Bicycle rider backs, because the design of the card backs, the court cards, and even things like the size and shape of the pips and indices, all have a well established style that most of us are used to. One aspect in which a "standard" deck may have some variation is the artwork or image on the card backs, but as far as the face cards are concerned, there is a fairly straight forward and familiar look. Reproducing this traditional look with only a different card back hardly makes a deck feel special or unique, so you can expect all this to change with a good quality custom deck of playing cards. Typically a degree of customization will be applied to almost all and every aspect of the artwork! Here are some things to look for as far as card design is concerned:
Customized Card Backs: Just like a tuck box is our first impression of a deck, so our first point of contact with a set of playing cards will be the card backs. The card back is going to be a repeated theme that you'll see repeated 54 times, so it is one of the single most important elements of determining the overall look of a deck.
- Borders: White borders are the most common, and probably still make the best card backs today. Since playing cards are made out of paper, cards with black borders or black faces tend to to show signs of wear and chipping as the cards are used with any frequency. White bordered cards wear in the same way, of course, but since the wear usually shows up as white, it is far less obvious with a white-bordered deck.
- Borderless: Some decks feature card backs without borders. These kinds of card backs tend to look fantastic for card flourishing moves like fans and spreads, and cardistry decks will often take good advantage of this. Magicians however tend to prefer cards with borders, because cards reversed in a deck are far more noticeable when the cards are borderless, making certain sleight of hand moves far more difficult to execute. It all depends on what you're using your deck for as to whether or not borderless cards are something that suits your need - they certainly can add an instant aesthetic appeal.
- One-way designs: The usual standard in playing cards is that the card backs are a symmetrical mirror-style image, thus making them fully reversible. A one-way design can look more impressive on its own, and can also be put to advantage by a magician, especially if it is subtle. But in most cases, a one-way design is less than desirable, because when shuffling and using the cards, they will invariably end up being in different directions. This quickly looks messy, which is why most prefer two-way or symmetrical designs.
- Simplicity: Ideally the back of a playing card should have an immediate visual appeal even from a distance, and be easily recognizable and memorable in a bold way. This quality has led to the success of big names like Bicycle and Bee, which have very distinct designs with clear features. Even a detailed design should have a clear shape or style that is immediately noticeable at first glance.
- Detail: While a playing card is helped by having a striking boldness and simplicity of its overall design, for the person who is drawn in by the design, it should reward them with fine detail that emerges upon close examination. The Bicycle deck serves as a good model here, because while it features two immediately obvious symmetrical circles as the main design, a close study of the details reveals an angel riding a bicycle.
- Creativity: Probably the most important thing about a card back, however, is what you personally think of it. Does it strike you as original and creative? Does it immediately grab you as beautiful or appealing? Obviously the artistic design of a card back is often linked to the overall theme of a deck, but there's also a very personal element of what strikes you as beautiful.
- Inks: Some decks will employ metallic inks on the card backs, and this immediately produces a very striking and stylish look, with a sheen that becomes obvious when the cards catch the light at certain angles.
- Foil: Taken to an extreme, some decks go the full hog and have metallic foil hot stamped on the back. This looks super luxurious and impressive, but comes with two disadvantages. Firstly, the shape of the hot stamped foil can sometimes carry through and be visible to the front of the card. Secondly, foil tends to be more slippery, and this will often impact the handling of the cards. But it does add a great deal of instant bling to a deck, and foil backs look super impressive!
Customized Jokers: Almost every deck of custom playing cards will have customized Jokers as a bare minimum. So even if all the other cards in the deck are relatively standard, expect to see something unique with the Jokers. Often the artwork chosen for these will have a tie-in to the artwork of the court cards in some way, although typically with the Jokers this will be more playful, fitting the nature and function of Jokers in a deck. Another thing to look for on the Jokers is a fun card reveal to use in card magic, since Jokers are ideal to use for this purpose.
Customized Aces: The Ace of Spades is normally always going to be a deck's signature card. This signature card has a long history of having unique artwork, even in a standard deck, and this dates back to the time when playing cards were taxed. Many custom decks will take this a step further and add a degree of customization to all the Aces. Look for Aces that have oversized pips, or add extra elements of ornate artwork and style.
Customized Courts: Besides the Aces and Jokers, court cards are one of most important places you can expect to find customization. These are probably the first cards you should be looking at, because what the designer has done with these will often tell the story of the deck. After all, the court cards comprise a dozen characters altogether, and this really gives an artist something to work with besides mere pips. Sometimes the court cards are merely a variation of the traditional courts, perhaps with an adjusted color scheme or style. But often this is the place in a deck where a creator has opted to use the full extent of their artistic license in a creative way. The traditional characters may even appear as animals, or some other unorthodox but yet creative creature or object. Court cards can vary a lot from deck to deck, but often a decision about whether or not a particular deck is for you will in part be based on what you think about the court cards.
Customized Pips: Almost certainly you can expect to see customized pips in a deck of playing cards, and in fact this quality is one of the things that gives it a unique appeal. Are they just a slight variation of normal pips? Or are they altered so much that they are barely recognizable or functional? Depending on what you use the deck for, these qualities may or may not matter, but they are certainly something you need to look at and consider. A deck with standard pips is going to be far less interesting, while a deck with highly customized pips may look unique, but not be functional if you're intending to use the deck for playing card games or performing magic, especially if the different suits are not easily and quickly distinguishable.
Customized Fonts: Another place to look for customization is the indices, which refers to the opposite corners of the card faces where you'll find the value of the card listed. Often a very stylized or artistic font will be used for the card indices, and this will immediately alter the look of the cards from something that is plain, or the other extreme of something that is highly ornate.
Customized Faces: We haven't yet mentioned the color of the overall canvas of the face cards. Instead of white, there may be a highly decorative pattern, or perhaps a vintage look. Some playing cards have even been cleverly designed to have the look of metal, wood, or denim. All of these kinds of features can add appeal and interest, helping make a custom deck more creative and unique.
Extra Cards: Depending on the publisher, sometimes a deck will also come with extra cards. Decks printed by Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) and Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC) tend to have exactly 54 cards, consisting of 52 cards in four suits plus two Jokers. Decks printed by United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) almost always have 56 cards, and the two extra cards are often used by creators to include some gaff cards for magicians, extra Jokers, ad cards, or information cards about the deck. Often the description of a deck will state how many cards are included and what they are, and it is often worth doing your research to find out what these are in advance, so that you know what you are getting.
If you embark on a conversation with a collector of playing cards, or anyone who uses playing cards on a regular basis for card magic or card flourishing, sooner rather than later you'll find yourself talking about the handling of the deck. Besides the visual aesthetics, the handling qualities of a deck of playing cards is one of its most important characteristics. This depends on the paper used, and processes applied to that paper, and that can vary from publisher to publisher. So here are some things to take into consideration as far as that goes:
Publisher: Fortunately we live in a time in which there are several industry leaders, all of which produce high quality playing cards that are durable and functional. United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) has a very long history in the playing card industry, and seeing their name on a deck of playing cards is almost always going to be an indication of quality in performance. But USPCC certainly does not have a monopoly on quality playing cards, and in recent years we have seen the emergence of a couple of publishers that print high quality playing cards in factories in Taiwan. Special mention should be made of Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) and Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC), who often work together and even share use of the same factory. While they offer a slightly wider range of finishes, in my experience their products match the level of quality found in a USPCC deck, and sometimes exceed it. Smaller companies like Hanson Chien Playing Cards and BOMBMagic also print in Asia, and have produced some high quality decks. European printer Carta Mundi has also been starting to produce high quality custom playing cards in recent years. Typically you want to avoid decks produced by cheap printers in China, or by lesser known publishers, although there are some exceptions.
Paper: The actual paper stock used is a very important part of the publishing process, and this can vary from stiff and durable to soft and flexible. Obviously this can have a significant impact on how a deck feels and handles. There will be differences in feel, largely dependent on how stiff or soft the card stock is. Some publishers will even offer a range of stocks that creators can choose from, so different decks produced by the same publisher will not necessarily feel the same. The card stock of LPCC/EPCC decks tends to be thinner than the card stock used by USPCC decks, but it is a strong paper that can handle a lot of wear and tear, so the thickness of the paper does not necessarily equate to durability. The card stock of LPCC/EPCC cards is also brighter/whiter than USPCC's Bicycle stock, and thus has a cleaner look. But a quality paper will ensure that the cards hold their shape well, and have a smooth and satisfying snap when springing the cards. While many publishers are constantly experimenting with or using different paper stocks, for the most part reputable publishers like the ones previously mentioned all operate to high standards. Just beware of cheaply made cards from lesser known publishers, which could allow you to see the face of a card from the back in bright light. Quality playing cards are actually made of two layers of paper with a layer of glue in between, which helps ensure that the layers stick together but also ensures that the cards are opaque, and that you cannot see through them.
Embossing: The word "finish" is often used in different ways in the playing card industry. Technically it does not refer to the coating that is applied to a card at the end of the printing process, but rather to the texture of the card's surface, which can be either smooth or embossed. Embossed cards are dimpled, and this creates an "air cushion" that makes the cards slide optimally, and this is what USPCC means when they speak of the "Air Cushion Finish" of their Bicycle playing cards. Terms like "Linen Finish" and "Cambric Finish" actually refer to the same thing, while other publishers like LPCC/EPCC use terms like "Diamond Finish" or "Classic Finish" to refer to different paper stocks and embossing patterns. These finishes can feel slightly differently, but the reality is that any playing card produced by a reputable publisher like these that has an embossed finish will usually perform well. As long as the card surface is embossed with tiny dimples to ensure the right level of friction, you can count on good handling, and expect the cards to fan beautifully and spread evenly. However embossing can be done to different depths and with different patterns. The deeper the embossing, the softer the cards will feel, and this is why the Classic and Elite/Damask Finish decks from LPCC/EPCC feel softer than their Diamond and JN/Emerald Finish decks.
Coating: To assist in handling a deck, the finish applied to a deck of cards is critical. Ideally, you want a publisher to use a consistent formula that creates a coating which enables cards to be easily spread, and yet not so slippery that shuffling becomes difficult. Many publishers like USPCC will advertise their deck as having "performance coating" or "magic finish", and this is what they are referring to. Without any coating at all, cards will not handle smoothly or consistently. In most cases, all the big name publishers will add a coating to the card to ensure that they perform well. Besides protecting the cards from moisture, this also ensures that the cards slide smoothly, and you will sometimes notice differences in how slippery the cards are, depending on what coating is used.
Cut: The cut of the cards refers to how cleanly the edges of the cards have been cut from an uncut sheet in the process of turning them into individual cards. The edges of cards produced by LPCC/EPCC tend to have a much cleaner and smoother cut than a USPCC printed deck, and when you run your fingers over one of their new decks, you can immediately tell that it is super smooth, with beautiful clean edges, which assists in making maneuvers like a perfect faro far easier. The direction of the cut can also be important. Some decks will have a "traditional cut", while others have a "modern cut". Most USPCC produced decks have a modern cut, which simply refers to the direction in which the cards are cut. A traditional cut will naturally favor face-down faro shuffles, while a modern cut will naturally favor face-up faro shuffles. For the average person, this will not make much difference, unless you are heavily into doing faro shuffles, and the direction of these really matters.
Registration: The registration refers to the accuracy of the printing on the cards themselves. Especially with a deck that uses narrow borders, you'll find that the registration on USPCC printed cards is not always accurate, resulting in the border appearing wider on one side than the other. As a result, LPCC/EPCC would be my preferred choice for printing decks with narrow borders, because they use a precision printing process that allows them to print narrow borders with accuracy and consistency, thus giving a greater range of options for designers.
What do you intend to use your deck of playing cards for? You should take your intended purpose into consideration, because different types of uses will all have different requirements, and this will affect what you should look for when choosing a quality deck of playing cards.
Card games: If you are primarily into playing card games, then your cards are going to see some heavy usage, and you want to make sure they are durable, and handle well during shuffling. Even more important, you want to make sure that any custom elements of the design do not get in the way of the deck's functionality. A deck might look pretty, but if you cannot easily tell the difference between spades and clubs on the indices of the cards, for example, or if the red and the black suits have similar color pips, you are going to find that this will make playing a card game difficult. Some customization is acceptable, but for the card player it should largely be limited to the card backs, the Jokers, and sometimes all the Aces and court cards.
Card magic: Many of the above comments also apply to a deck used for card magic. It should look somewhat familiar and recognizable, otherwise it might just scream "trick deck" to your spectator - even if it is not! You do not want the creative or artistic elements of your deck becoming a distraction, or making it difficult for spectators to recognize, identify, or remember cards. It is also important to have cards that are of a good quality card stock, so that they handle smoothly and evenly in fans and spreads, and also that sleights like a double lift or even a faro shuffle can be performed with ease and consistency. Some custom decks come with a couple of extra gaff cards, or with card reveals on the Jokers or tuck box, so those are additional perks to look for if you need a deck primarily for card magic.
Cardistry: For card flourishing, the two most important attributes of a deck will be its visual aesthetics, and its handling. It becomes essential to have cards that perform consistently and evenly during the difficult maneuvers that cardists like to do, and few things are more frustrating to a cardist than a deck that does not handle properly. But the looks are also important. Unlike cards used for magic or games, whether you can recognize suits and values quickly and easily is almost irrelevant, and all that matters is the visual aesthetics of the cards in motion. In the case of some decks, the very qualities that make them terrible to use for card games, are precisely the ones that make them absolutely fantastic for card flourishing.
Collecting: Of course if you are simply a collector, then the functionality of the cards also becomes far less important. Instead, what you look for in a quality deck of cards will be the visual aesthetics of the tuck case first of all, and you will be drawn to creativity and bling in design. Collectors also love uniqueness and originality in the design of the cards themselves. Creative designs on the card backs and the courts are not only welcome, but almost essential, and a high degree of customization on all the cards is expected, including the pips, otherwise a deck will have less appeal.
Given all the criteria above, is there still room for personal taste when choosing a deck of cards? Absolutely! Just like some people like chocolate ice cream while others prefer vanilla, which deck appeals to you will very much be a personal matter. When looking at a deck of cards, you do so through a set of eyes that is shaped by your own experiences and beliefs, and with your own personality. Everyone brings their own unique perspective to the table of observation and appreciation, and so what appeals to you might not appeal to another person. But that's perfectly fine! By all means find something that suits you, and that has a combination of colors, artworks, design, and style, that speaks to you, and feels "right".
So do take the time to consider everything carefully before you make a purchase. Fortunately we live in a time of privilege, and before we buy we can usually have the benefit of seeing images of the tuck boxes and the playing cards inside. Online retailers like PlayingCardDecks.com do a good job of helping us with this, by having an image gallery readily available, to showcase clear pictures of the deck that we are thinking of buying. While this might spoil the "surprise" of discovering what is inside a newly bought deck, I think we would all prefer to avoid any unpleasant surprises after a purchase. And let's be honest, in most cases taking a peek at the contents in advance just makes us all the more hungry for a deck, rather than making us want to avoid it!
And if the information on the product page is not enough for you, you can always do some further research by googling "Review [Deck Name]", and that will almost certainly bring you to some video reviews, pictorial reviews, or text reviews, that will give you all the information you need to make an informed decision. Happy shopping!
Join the discussion: Which qualities are most important to you in a deck of playing cards? What do you especially look for, and why?
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.