by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGameAlmost every industry has some kind of awards. Fortunately for us, the same applies to the world of custom playing cards. Like all awards, there's always going to be a certain amount of subjectivity involved. Who picked the nominees? What were the criteria? What kind of voting system was involved? And the announcements of winners may even spark debate. Were other candidates better? What potential candidates were overlooked completely?
But regardless of how you feel about awards, I'm convinced they're good to have. They are one way of recognizing some of the best in the industry. And they create discussion, and candidates other than the eventual winners will always be part of that discussion. And it will give some indication of the top performers.
When it comes to playing cards, there are several different communities that issue awards. In this article, I'd like to take a look at the award winners from 2021. But rather than fill your screen with words about the playing cards, I'd like to focus on the beauty of the decks themselves. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and let's face it, when it comes to playing cards, what matters is what we see. That's exactly what we appreciate about a good custom deck: how it looks. So let's get started, and enjoy this showcase of some of the best decks from 2021!
52 Plus Joker's 2021 Deck of the Year winner (Diamond Award)52 Plus Joker is the largest club of playing card collectors in the world, and ever since 2017 they have been running their Diamond Awards, which recognizes the best deck of the year, as voted by their large membership. Anyone can join the club by paying the membership fee, but there's no doubt that this club represents a large community of experienced and discerning playing card collectors. So to win their award, a deck has to be good.
The eligibility period for their annual awards runs from July to June each year, so the 2021 Deck of the Year Award represents a release from July 2020 through to June 2021. Typically the winner is announced at their annual convention in October, so from July through September there's a period of nomination and voting. The planned convention for October 2021 had to be cancelled due to COVID, so instead the winners were announced at a special Virtual Weekend event in April 2022.
Winner: Circus by Marianne Larsen & Martin HelgrenOffered in two editions - the Deluxa Edition shown here, and a companion Black Mosquito Edition - this deck has an exquisite tuck box, and features a vintage circus theme. It's the first time design from Marianne Larsen in collaboration with Martin Helgren, and was printed by NPCC.
Nominee: Bird Deck by Hilary PfeiferThis unique deck was created by an artist who first created the artwork for each card as an intricate collage, which was then reproduced onto playing cards. A huge project, and strikingly different.
Nominee: Charmers by Lotrek & Kellar O’NeilMagician Kellar O'Neil engaged rock-star playing card designer Lotrek for this project, to create an artistic and elegant deck described as evoking the art, luxury, and taste of the Victorian era. It's intended as a practical deck, so although it has a vintage feel it still has a standard look about it.
Nominee: Holographic Legal Tender V2 by Kings Wild Project (Jackson Robinson)Jackson Robinson is a familiar name, and the Legal Tender is a familiar deck. But with this holographic V2 edition, he has built on his legendary design to create something truly special, combining his banknote-inspired artwork with holographic luxury.
Nominee: Onda by Jocu (Alessandra Gagliano & Anthony Holt)The Jocu design team produced Onda on the heels of their successful Green Man decks and Hops & Barley decks, but the Onda deck is a real standout, as a vibrant exploration of a mythical ocean. The highlights are the 12 court card characters that inhabit the azure depths of this fantastical marine mythology.
Nominee: Umbra by Jody EklundUmbra continues Jody Eklund's Luminosity saga, and was inspired by Norse mythology. It captures something of the allegory written by Ricky Cassford, and tells something of the characters from the world of Luminosity, illustrating a journey from shadow into light.
Portfolio52 winnersPortfolio52 is a massive online playing card database that is free for any collector to use, as a way of keeping track of their collection, and was started by rock-star playing card designer Alex Chin. Their awards were previously known as the United Cardists Deck of the Year Awards (DOTY), and were connected with the United Cardists forum. They have been an annual feature there since 2013. But in September 2021 an announcement was made that Portfolio52 had acquired United Cardists and all its assets. As a result, the 2021 DOTY Awards came under the Portfolio52 umbrella for the first time. In actual fact the 2020 DOTY Awards had already been a collaboration between United Cardists and Portfolio52, so the way for this had already been paved the previous year.
What makes the Portfolio DOTY Awards unique is that they acknowledge winners in a much wider range of categories, besides a single and overall DOTY winner, which is their blue ribbon event and crowning award. This includes an award for Best Graphic Deck, Best Magic Deck, Best Cardistry Deck, and Best Rookie Deck. There are also separate categories for things like: Best Tuck Case, Best Joker, Best Back Design, Best Aces, Best Court Cards, Best Color Use, and Best Print Use. With almost a dozen different awards issued, I won't show all the winners, but will focus on the winners in the main categories.
Winner: 52 Plus Joker 2021 by Stockholm17Stockholm17 is a huge name in the custom playing card industry, and for 52 Plus Joker's 2021 club deck he really pulled out all the stops, with an extraordinary tuck case, and beautifully designed playing cards.
2nd place: Alice in Wonderland by Kings Wild Project (Jackson Robinson)With this deck Jackson Robinson created a delightful tribute to Lewis Carroll's classic story about Alice in Wonderland. All the cards are fully customized with gorgeous and charming artwork.
3rd place (tie): Royales by Kings & Crooks (Lee McKenzie)Lee McKenzie is the man behind the Kings & Crooks brand, and when he put his Royales series on Kickstarter, it was an immediate hit. These are playing cards that are oozing with elegance, with a classic look of sophistication and style.
3rd place (tie): Tale of the Tempest by The Gentleman Wake & LotrekLotrek is one of the biggest names in playing cards today, and is highly respected for his luxurious looking decks. This collaboration with The Gentleman Wake didn't disappoint, with lots of love and creativity evident in both the beautiful tuck cases and the playing cards themselves.
Best Rookie Deck: Inception by RunIt Decks & Dhon RagadioThe RunIt Decks team behind this deck hails from the Philippines, and their Inception deck aims to be a modern-day celebration of their origins and culture, with depictions of warriors, weapons, traditional clothing, and mythical creators, in a modern and colourful style. This deck also took out the awards for Best Use of Colour, Best Court Cards, and Best Back Design.
Best Cardistry Deck: Nebula by Emily Sleights 52Cardistry decks require lots of colour, and the Nebula deck from Emily Sleights 52 deck has plenty of it. It was inspired by the rebirth of stars and galaxies, and also functions as a metaphor about how we are always progressing and growing into better versions of ourselves.
Best Magic Deck: Butterfly Border series by Ondrej Psenicka & Stefan Eriksson
The marked version of his original Butterfly Deck from Ondrej Psenicka became a real hit after he successfully used it to fool Penn and Teller, but since then it has spawned some wonderful unmarked versions that make use of its gorgeous back design, including the seasonal decks that are part of the Border Series.
Best Graphic Deck: Bold by Elettra DeganelloItalian designer Elettra Deganello is a relatively new face on the playing card scene, but her expertise and creativity as a graphic designer really shines in her Bold decks, which come in a Deluxe and a STD version. These decks reinterpret the traditional English courts using decorative elements that cleverly make use of typographic symbols.
Kardify's 2021 Deck of the Year winnerWhile the Deck of the Year award from 52 Plus Joker (above) and Portfolio52 (below) are both voted on by members of their respective community, Kardify's Deck of the Year award is simply chosen by the people who run the Kardify website. This is an independent portal that covers playing card news, analysis, interviews, reviews, and previews. It is run by playing card enthusiast Ivan Choe, who also showcases wonderful work by photographer Anthony Ingrassia.
Kardify has been running Top 12 lists each year for some time already, but their Deck of the Year award was only issued for the first time in 2020. That means that the 2021 Deck of the Year makes only the second time they have crowned an overall "best". The award is announced at the very end of the year, and represents their choice for the best deck that appeared on the market in that calendar year.
Their Top 12 list for 2021 consisted of a dozen wonderful decks, and they also named another 13 honorable mentions.
Winner: 52 Plus Joker 2021 by Stockholm17The deck that took the top prize was the 52 Plus Joker 2021 Club Deck, which also won Portfolio52's "2021 Deck of the Year". You can read their article which covers their announcement of the winner.
Top 12: Alice in Wonderland by Kings Wild Project (Jackson Robinson)In this whimsical deck we go down the rabbit hole with Jackson Robinson, who brings the memorable characters of the Alice in Wonderland story to life. It also took second place in Portfolio52's awards, so it was no surprise to see it in this Top 12 list.
Top 12: Atlantis by Riffle ShuffleThe mythical Atlantis is well-known from the tales of legend as a lost city below the ocean depths. This deck brings to life the mythical legend about this advanced civilization with two companion decks, one showing the city at its height before it disappeared, the other showing the city as it rests in the depths of the sea.
Top 12: Black Market by Thirdway Industries (Giovanni Meroni)This limited edition could only be accessed for purchase with a special password, and this hidden gateway echoes what the deck is about: the Black Market Secret Society, which is a fictional company that specializes in selling special items to its members.
Top 12: Blue Jay by Meadowlark & Elettra DeganelloAs sequel to the beautiful Meadowlark deck, the Blue Jay deck showcases the talents of Elettra Deganello, who took some core features of the original deck but added a dentistry sub-theme, and gorgeous design that made excellent use of Cartamundi's cold foil.
Top 12: Harry Potter by Theory11Getting the licence for creating an official Harry Potter deck comes with a big responsibility, but Theory11 is the company able to live up to that. The gorgeous tuck boxes didn't disappoint, and the custom artwork on the cards does a superlative job of representing some of the key characters from the famous stories.
Top 12: Kingdom & Kinghood by Artisan Playing CardsThese stunning decks feature extraordinary tuck boxes, and a level of innovation not previously seen. The exquisite illustrations on the cards and the boxes echoes the theme and opulence of royalty from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and two very different decks were part of this project.
Top 12: Marvelous Hummingbird by Kellar O'Neil & Chris TiptonHummingbirds are associated with rapid movement and exquisite beauty, and the extraordinary tuck boxes and card backs of this deck do a terrific job of paying homage to the beauty of hummingbird feathers, including copious amounts of eye-catching iridescence that looks amazing when it catches the light.
Top 12: Pioneers by EllusionistThis marked deck was created by Ellusionist with a deliberate vintage look, which is immediately evident from the tuck box, and the aged look of the playing cards themselves. Period style artwork has been used to capture something of the 1893 World's Fair, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
Top 12: Republic by UusiCreators Uusi are famous for bringing traditional art techniques to playing cards, and this lovely deck featured hand-inked artwork inspired by earth tones, with monochrome cards in either red or black, featuring a woodcut look. It's based on Finnish/Nordic folk art and design, and the name is taken from Uusi's home-town in Michigan, where there is a large Finnish community.
Top 12: Royales by Kings & Crooks (Lee McKenzie)We've seen this deck previously already as part of the Portfolio52 routines, and its excellence makes it a worthy addition to this Top 12 list. This luxury deck is inspired by the gold and glamour of a fictional casino, in the style of Monte Carlo, and where we can expect to find the world's wealthy at play.
Top 12: Wayfarers by Joker and the ThiefThis deck captures the spirit of travel and adventure, a spirit embodied in James, the man behind the Joker and the Thief brand. The playing cards represent those who wander far and wide, capturing themes such as personal freedom and the human desire to fly high, while also depicting the elements of nature.
Final ThoughtsThese awards give us some idea of some of the top custom playing cards that are on the market today. Certainly there are others that could have made the grade as well, so this is by no means a list that is exhaustive. But does give some sense of the superlative playing cards that creative designers are producing.
We are fortunate to live in an era where playing card manufacturers are able to produce playing cards of the highest quality, and where designers have the time and ability to match this with wonderful designs like the ones recognized by the above industry awards. The future is bright, and I'm already looking forward to seeing what decks will win awards for 2022!
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.