Marked Decks for Magicians, Part 3
● It should use an-easy-to-use reader system, and ideally have decent sized markings on the long edges.
● It should disguise the markings sufficiently, and ideally look as normal as possible.
In short, enabling you to read the markings easily and quickly is the most essential quality of a good marked deck, while at the same time it should prevent easy detection by your spectators.
There are plenty of marked decks on the market, but the majority of working magicians will want to narrow down the field of suitable candidates to a Bicycle Rider Back or similar. That's especially true if you plan to use the same kind of deck for all your other card magic, because then the cards will look normal and are less likely to arouse suspicion. Something can seem fishy if you pull out a "special" deck merely for a particular trick that requires a marked deck, and where the cards look completely different from the decks you use for all your other card magic.
About ten years ago the manufacturer of Bicycle decks, the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), took further steps to protect their brand, and this included trademarking the distinctive design of their classic 808 Rider Back. One consequence of this move is that alterations to the Rider Back design are no longer permitted. This had the effect of ruling out any further printings of marked versions that used this classic back design. But to meet the demand for marked decks in the Rider Back style, USPCC came up with two other back designs that do permit alterations and markings, and which to the casual observer look almost identical to the Rider Back: the 809 Mandolin Back (first released in 2010) and the 813 Maiden Back (first released in 2012).
Some magicians will also have further requirements, such as an additional marking that indicates the exact location of a card in a prearranged deck. This can be incredibly powerful, particularly when it is combined with the concept of a memorized stack, because you can immediately identify the cards preceding or following any given card. Such systems can even enable you to know any card that is a specific number of cards away from any other card. So depending on what you are looking for, the answer to the question about which marked deck is right for you will vary. But I will start by identifying the best reader decks that simply indicate a card's value and suit, and I will save more high powered marked decks with other features for my next article.
In introducing you to the best marked decks that meet the above criteria, I am not going to show you detailed pictures that actually identify and teach the actual markings. Given how carefully magicians protect their secrets, that would be taboo, and I'll already be pulling back the curtain far enough with my written descriptions. But the level of detail I will include is along the lines of what you'll find in the promotional ad copy for these decks, in reviews on Youtube or magic retailer sites, or in discussion threads on public magic forums. So my aim is to find the right balance between honouring the magician's code, while also providing enough information to help you make an informed buying decision about the marked deck that's right for you, working with the details about these marked decks that are already publicly available and easily accessible elsewhere.
In this article I'll be covering the following basic reader decks, which are the best of the breed:
● 2005 - Boris Wild Marked Deck ($20) by Boris Wild (Maiden Back)
● 2005 - Ultimate Marked Deck ($40) by Magic Dream (Rider Back)
● 2011 - GT SpeedReader ($14) by Garrett Thomas (Mandolin Back)
● 2017 - Marked Cards ($10) by Penguin Magic (Maiden Back)
Inspiration: Working Performer's Marked Deck (1983) by Ted Lesley
Lesley's method of marking decks was very popular when it came out, largely because it took a different approach to marked decks than the more commonly used coded systems. Using his method resulted in marked decks that were very easy to read, because it offered a bold marking system that could even be read from some distance away.
To be fair, this idea had been suggested well before Lesley. Already in the 1920s, T. Page Wright posited the notion of using a typewriter to put openly readable marks on the backs of cards. And in the 1950s Al Baker used an alpha-numeric system of letters and numbers to represent suits and values, which he implemented on the back design of Bicycle Angel Back Squeezer cards. This was followed by similar systems from Harry Riser and others. But there's no doubt that Ted Lesley's 1983 book popularized the concept for use with Bicycle Rider Backs, and had a significant impact on the use of marked decks from here on in. His idea made it very practical to create a complete and functional marked deck using rub-on transfers, and it quickly became quite a hit with magicians who learned about it.
For its time, Lesley's deck was brilliant and innovative, and his companion book was also highly praised. But it did have disadvantages, especially when compared with the factory printed products we have available to us today. The marks could be considered a little too obvious, and quite a number of performers found that they got caught by spectators when using it. In addition, applying the transfers manually yourself required real time and effort. The transfers could also rub off over time, so they had a limited shelf life.
So while the Ted Lesley Marked Deck still has some admirers today, it has largely been superseded by the factory printed decks that are readily available in today's market, and which are covered in this article.
Boris Wild Marked Deck by Boris Wild
Back design: 813 Maiden Back
First released: 2005
The Boris Wild Marked Deck is named after its creator, French magician Boris Wild. Boris Wild's credentials speak for themselves: he is a previous winner of FISM, which is the most prestigious award in magic. Boris first started playing around with marked decks in the mid 1990s, but his own factory printed deck first appeared on the market in the sumemr of 2005. Prior to this he had taught his marking system so that it could be used with Ted Lesley's transfers, but having his marked deck factory printed was a truly ground-breaking and revolutionary development. At the time it was the very first factory printed Bicycle marked deck with a reader system on the Rider Back design that was printed by USPCC.
It is still quite popular today due to the unique way in which it indicates suit. By cleverly eliminating the need for a separate marking for suit, this clever deck enables you to do things that can't be done with most other reader decks.
When the Boris Wild Marked Deck was first released it used the Rider Back design on the card backs. That was later changed to the Maiden Back design after USPCC adopted its new policy to disallow any customization of the trademarked Rider Back going forwards. The Maiden Back design was developed as an alternative back design in 2011, and and was originally known as the Angel Back. Boris Wild and Geno Munari (who together also created the Gambler's Marked Deck, a marked deck with a stack that will be covered in the next article) had some input in shaping its final design, which was developed by Theory11. To the average observer, the Maiden Back version of this marked deck still looks like a normal Bicycle deck, and unmarked versions of the Maiden Back are also available.
The Boris Wild Marked Deck is a reader based deck, clearly inspired by Ted Lesley's Marked Deck, but with factory printed marks. In creating this marked deck, among the most important criteria for Boris were speed and readability. He wanted the marks to be on the edge of the cards so that they could be easily read in a spread, while still being well hidden by the design. Everything about this marked deck has been designed for speed, which is also why the markings are entirely numeric rather than alphabetic. They're also located in areas of the card less likely to be covered by your thumb when dealing the cards.
A striking feature of the Boris Wild deck is that the cards are only marked for the value. The suits are cleverly indicated by where this mark is located on the card back, which will be in one of four different places along the long edge of the cards. So the side of each card has been divided into four "levels", each of which corresponds to a different suit.
As is usual for USPCC decks, the Boris Wild Marked Deck comes with two extra cards, which in this case give instructions about the markings and how to use them.
The disadvantage of this system is that initially it can take a little longer to read than a standard reader deck, because to determine the suit you need to quickly scan up to four areas on the card backs. Most marked decks allow you to bring your eye straight to a single place on the card back where you know the marking will be, and that makes them quicker to read. In some situations, that makes the Boris Wild Marked Deck less than ideal (e.g. if you're trying to find a four-of-a-kind), although with experience you'll quickly train yourself to use this system rapidly.
But the fact that the markings aren't in the same spot offers some real perks that you can turn to your benefit. This unorthodox marking system has been deliberately engineered to provide other advantages, which are well taught in the support resources for this unique deck. For example, if you're looking for a card from a specific suit, you just need to look at one area of the card, making it much quicker to find. This was one of Boris Wild's goals with this deck, namely to enable you to find a single card in a spread very quickly. It's a real strength of this clever marked deck that you can accomplish this without needing to examine each and every card individually. You can basically eliminate 75% of the deck instantaneously, and focus on finding the selection by just examining a portion of the card back.
In the final analysis, this is a very well thought out system that allows you to find a specific card in a spread just by scanning the relevant level of the card. So if that's the kind of work you're using your marked deck for, this will actually make the Boris Wild Marked Deck a better choice than comparable marked decks. In his video, Boris demonstrates how you can use his markings to locate a specific card in a face-down spread even more quickly than you could locate it in a face-up spread, which is very impressive!
It is true that the Boris Wild Marked Deck will require a little more practice than most other marked reader decks in order to master it. The markings used with this deck also aren't as large as those on some other marked decks, such as the Marked Cards from Penguin. So those who struggle with aging eyes may find that they want to compare it with other options. But the marks are far less likely to be noticed by your spectators, and many magicians report that the markings even go unnoticed by other magicians who are checking to see if it's a marked deck. With less markings on the card backs as a result of the marking system, you're less likely to have someone actually notice the marks anyway. So this deck does have some applications that are unique to it, and it offers flexibility and some advantages that other marked decks don't have.
Along with my copy of the deck came a double sided sheet of paper with full instructions about how the markings work, and tips to use them. There's also an explanation about how to perform the excellent trick "Name My Card", which is taken from the book Hidden in Plain Sight.
But because you can do things with this innovative deck that you simply can't do with other marked decks, it is best used in combination with some of the additional resources created for it. One such resource is the instructional video that was produced for it by Big Blind Media, entitled The Boris Wild Marked Deck Project. It is available as a DVD or download, is priced at around $30, and has over four hours of tutorials and instruction, including some brilliant routines.
Of all the video resources mentioned in this article, this video is easily the best of the lot. This video showcases Boris himself providing specialized teaching that is geared specifically to the system used by his Boris Wild Marked Deck. He teaches you everything you need to know to maximize the benefits of the Boris Wild markings in a way that isn't possible with other decks. More importantly, he teaches a number of top notch routines, which are surprisingly easy to learn and strong in effect, courtesy of the power of his marked deck.
The video really is a must-have if you want to really want to get everything you can out of this marked deck. The production quality is outstanding too, and Boris does an excellent job in teaching and explaining everything, with the benefit of his expertise. The tips he gives in an extra section about the cull are also very helpful. He also covers how to make your own deck with his marking system, which will take about 15-20 minutes using white transfers or a white marker (that you'll have to purchase yourself) once you're experienced at it. There's no doubt that his passion and enthusiasm is infectious, and will really inspire you to get out there in the real world and do miracles with the Boris Wild Marked Deck.
Besides the video, Boris has also contributed to the book Hidden in Plain Sight (2005) by Kirk Charles, which is not just an excellent resource about his deck and about marked decks more generally, but is one of the all-time top books on the subject of marked decks. His book The Complete Boris Wild Marked Deck (2001) and the more recent Transparency (2012) also teach a solid number of routines, techniques, and applications for marked decks. A 40 page PDF with a selection of the content of Transparency, including six great routines, is available under the title Boris Wild Marked Deck Lecture Notes. While these are specifically tailored to the Boris Wild Marked Deck, they will also allow you to unleash the power of combining a marked deck with a stack (the Boris Wild Memorized Deck), for even more impressive miracles. Boris is a true professional, and a real strength of his material lies in the construction of the routines, and the presentational elements he teaches - this is all very strong magic.
The Boris Wild Marked Deck may not be the first choice for someone looking for a plain reader deck. But if you are prepared to adopt this system and learn the techniques that take advantage of it, you will find yourself well-rewarded given the unique potential this deck offers. It's not as well suited for some tricks that require a marked deck, but for others it is actually better suited. So it's an excellent tool well worth knowing about and considering. And for those who aren't fond of Bicycle backs, a Phoenix Edition of the Boris Wild Marked Deck is also available, which offers an alternative back design.
Especially if you combine the Boris Wild Marked Deck with some of his own teaching materials, you will find yourself very well equipped for some stunning card magic, some of which simply can't be performed with other marked decks. This is definitely a great marked deck that deserves a solid thumbs up.
Ultimate Marked Deck by Magic Dream
Back design: 808 Rider Back
First released: 2005
The Ultimate Marked Deck (dubbed in magic circles as UMD for short) was released around 2005. It originates with French magicians and creators Damien Vapereau and Jean-Marc Gahri, and the French company behind it is called Magic Dream.
When the Ultimate Marked Deck first appeared on the market, it was highly praised for being a reader deck that cleverly incorporates marks into the Rider Back design. Many working magicians immediately embraced it, and lauded it for being the best marked deck that they'd seen and used. The fact that it actually used the Rider Back design was naturally a real strength. And unlike the Boris Wild Marked Deck, all the marks were in the same place, making it easier to use.
This deck bears the unique distinction of being the only deck on the list that still utilizes the Rider Back design. USPCC has not allowed marked decks to be printed with the Rider Back design for more than ten years now, and the original print run of the Ultimate Marked Deck preceded this new policy. But despite the new restriction, Magic Dream managed to successfully convince USPCC management to do one final print run of the Ultimate Marked Deck with the Rider Back design in 2015. It's uncertain how they managed to pull this off, given USPCC's strict policy on disallowing any alterations to their trademark. But it definitely means that this print run represents the very last marked deck to be produced with Bicycle Rider Backs. The Ultimate Marked Deck was produced in both a red and a blue version, but at most retailers you'll find that the blue deck is already sold out. Once the remaining stock sells, these will never be available again.
The markings are in the two places where you would expect to find them: near the top left corner, and in the opposite corner, making this deck very intuitive to use and easy to learn. This does make it more susceptible to being discovered via the riffle test ("taking a deck to the movies") than decks like the Boris Wild Marked Deck and the GT Speedreader. Particularly the GT Speedreader is more deceptive in that the marks are near the lower left corner, making them less likely to be observed by a spectator or uncovered via the riffle test. But having the markings at the top left corner is more convenient for reading when spreading or fanning the cards in a normal way, so the Ultimate Marked Deck does use a very practical marking system.
The size of the marks on the Ultimate Marked Deck is similar to those used on the GT Speedreader, and slightly smaller than the ones used on the Marked Cards from Penguin. What dictated the size and style of the markings was an effort to create a marked deck with the ideal qualities best suited to performing card magic in performance conditions before spectators: invisibility and readability. The goal was to have markings that won't be detected by your audience, and that are still easy, simple and quick for you as a magician to read.
The font size of the markings on the Ultimate Marked Deck accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. As a magician, you can read them from a slight distance away when performing, knowing that the marks are always in the same place and a cinch to read when you're working with the decks. But because your spectator is slightly further away, the marks will completely escape his notice, because they blend into the design so seamlessly.
One other thing to be aware of about the Ultimate Marked Deck is that the tuck box has a Magic Dream logo on the bottom, which could tip off your spectators that something is out of the ordinary. Although it's highly unlikely that this would be noticed, if you are dead-set on making absolutely everything look innocuous and "normal", you may want to switch the box with a regular one.
Although the Ultimate Marked Deck is at a very high price point compared with other marked decks, its real strength is that it is printed with the Bicycle Rider Back design. So it will especially appeal to magicians who insist on having a marked deck that uses a Rider Back design, and want to steer away from the Mandolin Back and Maiden Back decks. If you restrict yourself in this way, then your options will be very limited, because this is pretty much the only marked deck that meets those criteria.
The Ultimate Marked Deck also has a Ultimate Marked Deck Companion Book (alternatively entitled: 100% Ultimate: The Secrets + 36 Routines) that can be purchased separately for around $30. Like the deck, it was created by Magic Dream, who owns the rights both to the Ultimate Marked Deck and to the companion book. It was written in 2010 by Ivan Laplaud in combination with the creators of the deck, Damien Vappereau and Jean-Marc Gaheri. It is almost 150 pages in length, so it's a solid piece of work, and even includes some bonus routines contributed by Gaetan Bloom, Darwin Ortiz, and Michael Weber. It's an excellent resource, and is well organized, clearly laid out, has plenty of helpful diagrams, solid ideas, and good crediting.
Besides some specifics about Ultimate Marked Deck, and techniques and tips for handling the deck and glimpsing the marks, the book also provides helpful information about marked decks generally, including their history, and what to look for in a good marked deck. But the real treasure follows all this. About two thirds of the book (over 100 pages) covers tricks and routines for marked decks, and this material is useful for any marked deck, not just the Ultimate Marked Deck. And it is very good content, with a lot of outstanding ideas. Not only does it explain the methods to a number of very fine tricks, but its value especially lies in a real emphasis on presentation. In terms of books with routines and tricks for marked decks, it's one of the very best that I have.
The Ultimate Marked Deck is a good marked deck. And if you do insist on a Rider Back marked deck, then this is the one to get. The companion book is also outstanding, and although it is a separate purchase, it is well worth considering getting regardless of which marked deck you buy.
But you'll likely have to source the deck itself from a magic retailer. And the price is quite steep, and it has a limited availability. So don't wait too long, because once they sell out, they'll be gone forever.
GT SpeedReader by Garrett Thomas
Back design: 809 Mandolin Back
First released: 2011
The GT SpeedReader has been around for a decade now. It is available widely through magic distributor Murphy's Magic, and their current pricing makes it more competitive than ever before, which is appropriate given how the market for marked decks now gives buyers several options to choose from.
This marked deck was created with the involvement of respected magician Garrett Thomas (hence the name GT), who in turn was inspired by the marking system popularized as a result of Ted Lesley's Marked Deck.
Available in either red or blue backs, the GT Speedreader uses the Mandolin Back design, which is used more widely for gaffed decks ever since it came out in 2010 as an alternative to the Rider Back design. The Mandolin artwork was actually created by Garrett, and was deliberately designed to be a close sister to the Rider Back, so to casual observers it looks just like a normal Bicycle deck with the usual seal and artwork. Artistically, it ingeniously represents a later stage in the life of the angel pictured on the Rider Back, who has now grown up, and has moved into an exploration of the outdoor world and the arts. Like the Maiden Back design, the Mandolin Backs are available in unmarked versions, so you can actually use these decks for all your card magic if you really want to. But when used appropriately, there's really no reason for your audiences to suspect anything even if you are using this marked deck, so there's no need to fear that your markings will be detected or noticed.
That's especially due to the location of the markings in this deck. Unlike the Ultimate Marked Deck from Magic Dream and the Marked Cards from Penguin, with the GT Speedreader the markings are only on the lower left hand corner (and on the opposite corner at the top right), and not on the upper left hand corner where they are on most other marked decks. The fact that the markings are only on these two corners of the deck is very much by deliberate design.
The value and suit is marked with the appropriate number/letter and the suit icon. The markings are similar in size to the ones on the Ultimate Marked Deck, but slightly smaller in size than the ones on Penguin's Marked Cards. This makes them less noticeable than with the Penguin deck, but also requires somewhat sharper eyes. Yet they are still easy enough to read, so you shouldn't have any problems using them, unlike some marked decks that feature microscopic print, and are completely impractical. Even so, be aware that some older magicians have reported that they found the markings a little too small. So if your eyesight is starting to wane as you cross the wrong side of 40 or 50, you may need to consider the Penguin deck instead. But overall the GT Speedreader is still very much a functional deck built for workers.
The GT Speedreader deck is produced on Bicycle's standard stock with their usual air cushion finish. The two additional cards included in the current version are a double backer, and an ad card that explains the markings on one side and has a chart with Poker hand rankings on the other side. Not that we should be using a deck like this for Poker anyway, so that was somewhat of an unexpected surprise. The double backer is also marked, so it can be easily identified, and so are both Jokers that come with the deck.
So why have the markings at the bottom left? In the instructional video available for the deck, it is pointed out that the traditional location of markings at the upper left of a deck has its origin in the use of marked cards by gamblers and cheats. They often rely on techniques like second deals, for which markings at the upper left are optimal, and marked decks have evolved from this usage. But magicians rely on different techniques than gamblers, so it is important to locate the markings where they will best serve the methods of magic rather than that of gamblers. Having the markings at the upper left comes with a risk that spectators will obscure the markings when they grab a card.
An argument can also be made that the markings are less likely to be detected at the lower left. From the creator I learned than as part of their research when creating this deck, they used eye movement tracking software to see which parts of a card people scan first and look at more closely. They discovered that the top of a card is where people tend to look first, increasing the risk of discovery. Spectators and magicians also expect markings at the upper left, because that's the most obvious place to look and check. But with the GT Speedreader, there is nothing to see there, and even taking the deck to the movies in the usual way will reveal no hints of any markings if you're looking at the top left. When you spread or fan the cards in the regular way from right to left, the exposed section of the card won't offer anything obvious for your spectator to notice that might give away the markings, while from their viewpoint they remain cleverly hidden in the spread and will escape their notice.
And while having the marks at the lower left makes them harder for your spectator to notice, this location can also make them easier for you as a magician to read. When holding the deck in the standard Mechanics Grip, your thumb naturally obscures the top left of a card, while the bottom left remains visible - and that's exactly where the markings are located with the GT Speedreader. This location also enables you to more easily peek at the markings when doing sleights like holding a break. The instructional video helps you learn how to take full advantage of the location of the markings, because it teaches clever techniques for obtaining a peek (e.g. his riffle peek) in ways and moments that you wouldn't think possible. And if using a deck with a stack and letting your spectator select a card by riffling through the deck and peeking at its corner in a natural way, you can still easily read the markings at the top right.
So an argument can be made that for card magic it actually makes more sense for the markings to be on the lower left rather than the upper left. Is it a convincing case? I think it might be slightly overstated, but I haven't personally done enough research to be confident that having the markings at the lower rather than upper left significantly decreases the chances of laymen discovering them. Probably the most important factor for the magician to consider here is your own preference in reading them, and whether having the marks at the top or bottom makes it easiest for you. Both locations have advantages and disadvantages.
But there's no doubt that with the GT Speedreader, everything was about making the markings as easy as possible to read, as quickly as possible. This has also determined other design choices, such as the use of card numbers/letters and suits, so that they match what we're used to seeing on the indices of the faces. Commonly confused suits like hearts/spades and diamonds/clubs have also had their sizes tweaked to make the distinction more obvious, and for similar reasons 6s and 9s are usefully distinguished with the help of a dot in the sixes.
The newest release of this marked deck also comes with access to an excerpt from an instructional video that from Kozmomagic (creators of the excellent Reel Magic Magazine). Entitled the GT Speedreader DVD, this was released when the GT Speedreader first came out, and is a full length video that runs for 1 hour and 46 minutes. It covers various ways to use the deck, as well as a few tricks, and I highly recommend it.
The first part of the video covers how to read the deck, and general tips about using marked decks. Then there's a section about forces and peeks that teaches how to use the GT Speedreader for several popular forces in a less obvious way, and numerous ways to safely get a peek either before or after a selection is made. There's a decent section about how to use a marked deck in combination with a stack, including some ideas for what you can do with this.
The tutorial video features Garrett Thomas, who also explains how you can use the marked deck to strengthen how you get into classic tricks like Twisting the Aces, or Dai Vernon's The Trick That Can't Be Explained. The section on this Vernon classic is the 4 minute excerpt that you get access to for free online if you buy the deck, and quite frankly it's not much use on its own without the rest of the DVD. But when seen in the larger context of the whole instructional video, it's quite useful. While "The Trick That Can't Be Explained" doesn't absolutely require a marked deck, you'll learn how to perform this classic trick by taking advantage of a marked deck in a way that makes it much easier to perform and more impossible for your spectator.
There's also a half hour section at the end of the video where Garrett himself does half a dozen tricks where he improvises on the fly with actual spectators, showing how you can use the marked deck to take advantage of situations to accomplish very strong effects, and where he gives numerous ideas for different tricks you can do with a marked deck.
When the GT Speedreader first came out ten years ago, it was priced at $20. It is now owned by Murphy's Magic, and the latest printing from 2019 is now at the much more attractive price point of around $14. That makes it significantly less than its original price, and with the backing of Murphy's Magic, it is also getting a much wider and global distribution. That's good news for us, because it means that this is a good value and practical deck that is relatively inexpensive to pick up.
I only wish that there was an easier way to get access to the contents of the entire instructional video, which for now appears to be only available as an actual DVD, and is a separate purchase that costs around $20. To stay competitive with Penguin's Marked Cards, which comes with two full-length video tutorials, I hope that the creators will make the entire video available for purchasers of the deck. From correspondence I've had with the creator of the GT Speedreader, I have learned that this is the plan, and hopefully in the near future it should be available online as streaming video. Either way, the GT Speedreader is a good choice if you like the sound of a quality marked deck, and want discreet markings that are less likely to get discovered by alert spectators.
Marked Cards by Penguin Magic
Back design: 813 Maiden Back
First released: 2017
The Marked Cards deck was produced by Penguin Magic, a popular and specialty magic retailer that has created numerous other magic products. These are guys that specialize in selling to magicians, and in making things for magicians. So they know their target market incredibly well, and decided to create a very practical deck that meets the requirements for use in card magic, with an attractive price point to match. Involved with the project were well known names in card magic like Kevin Reylek, an expert in marked cards, Rick Lax, and others from Penguin.
They certainly succeeded in achieving their aim, because this is easily and rightly one of the most popular marked decks available on the market today, and as an added bonus it is also the cheapest on this list, costing only $10 each ($5 each if you buy a brick directly from Penguin).
Penguin's Marked Cards have very easy to read markings in six different places: in all four corners, as well as at the very top and bottom of the cards. When using the deck you will be looking at the top three markings of these, since the bottom three will be upside down. The markings are very easy to read, with value and suit indicated by the appropriate number/letter and the corresponding pip.
The deck is produced with Bicycle's popular Magic finish, and air cushion style embossing, so the handling will be much like similar decks. After the very first print run, all subsequent printings of this deck use what Penguin calls "Elite stock", which is simply another way to refer to the crushed Classic stock used for a lot of USPCC decks these days. It has proven to be a very popular stock for playing cards, since it feels quite soft rather than snappy out of the box, and handles nicely from the get go. USPCC typically prints 56 cards in a deck, so besides the two Jokers you also get a double backer and a blank-faced card.
The tuck box looks completely innocent, although Penguin has cleverly used a different colour for the text below the giant Spade on the tuck box, as a visual indicator so that you can easily distinguish your marked deck from an unmarked Maiden Back deck. One surprising thing about the box is that it has no tuck seal (which is unusual for a Bicycle deck), which may arouse suspicion for the highly observant spectator. But the deck does come in cellophane so otherwise there is nothing out of the ordinary to notice.
The cards also come in red or blue, and you can even optionally buy them in prearranged Mnemonica order. While that won't mean much for the average person, magicians who use this popular memorized stack will be able to take advantage of it by performing apparent miracles straight up.
Like the current Boris Wild Marked Deck, Penguin's marked deck uses the popular Maiden Back design, so it looks very much like a Rider Back deck. If the slight differences between these card backs is an issue for you, simply use an unmarked Maiden Back deck for all your other card magic, and then there will be nothing out of the ordinary to notice when you ring in your marked Maiden Back deck. But for all intents and purposes, to your spectator it will look exactly like any other standard Bicycle deck, and the small changes from the Rider Backs won't even be anything they notice.
The back design does a surprisingly good job of hiding the markings, so if you use this deck wisely you won't ever have to worry about getting caught, and the marks will completely escape the attention of your spectators. Yet once you know where to look, you can easily see them and read them. Having them in six different locations on the card means that no matter how the cards are held or spread, you can easily see some of the marks and still identify the cards.
I wouldn't want to hand these cards out to a spectator for close examination, because the markings are larger than those used by the other three marked decks covered above. But they should still go undetected when in use, courtesy of the complexity of the back design, and the familiar look that is highly reminiscent of the classic Bicycle Rider Back.
A real benefit of Penguin's Marked Cards is that with your purchase you also get access to two online tutorial videos, one by Rick Lax (48 minutes), and the other by Jon Armstrong (31 minutes). These full length video downloads teach you everything you need to know about making optimal use of the markings, and give some really good advice about getting the most out of your marked deck. They also offer several discreet ways to glimpse the markings in a natural way under the cover of other moves, and include some killer tricks you can perform with the help of your marked deck.
In his video, Jon Armstrong makes a good case for why you should use a marked deck for all the card magic you perform. He also teaches you how to use your marked deck in a way that will ensure your spectators will have no reason to suspect you're using anything other than a normal deck. The Rick Lax video covers how the markings work, and teaches four good tricks you can perform with a marked deck: Dual Divination, Spot the Difference, Show Me a Trick, and Invisible Deck. The last of these combines the power your marked deck with the power of an Invisible Deck, to produce a 1 in 52 miracle where your spectator selects the same card you did. I especially enjoyed "Show Me a Trick", which is like Ted Lesley's classic "Spectator as Mindreader", but adds an "Do as I Do" element where you simultaneously find their card, making the effect even stronger.
Reviews of this deck from magicians are almost universally very positive, and for the price (only around ten bucks), Penguin's Marked Maiden Back deck really can't be beat for value. They're even cheaper when bought by the brick directly from the creators, so they are built to be very affordable, so that you can use them as your everyday deck, regardless of what kind of card magic you are doing.
They're also very practical and easy to use. And the fact that you get free tutorial videos along with the deck is a real bonus, because you not only get good advice about how to use a marked deck, but also get some terrific routine ideas. Considering the entire package, you can hardly go wrong with this excellent deck.
Other Bicycle-branded Marked Decks
● 2008 - Gambler's Marked Deck ($33) by Boris Wild & Geno Munari (Maiden Back)
● 2013 - The Code ($30) by Andy Nyman (Maiden Back)
● 2017 - Marksman Deck ($35) by Luke Jermay (Mandolin Back)
All of these three decks are also excellent Bicycle-branded marked decks that I highly recommend. However they combine a marked deck with additional markings for a prearranged stack. As a result they are also typically in a higher price bracket, and due to the additional features and possibilities they include, they deserve separate coverage. Look for that in my next two articles, which will also introduce you to some great marked decks that are not Bicycle-branded, as well as some information and resources about how to make your own marked deck.
Besides these, there's a few other factory printed Bicycle decks that were possible candidates for this article. All are around the $10 price point, but I did not cover them in detail since they are not readily available, or have markings that are impractical and too hard to read:
● Pure Mark Playing Cards by TCC (Mandolin Back). This doesn't seem to be carried by most of the larger magic retailers, and is no longer available directly from the creator. I can't recommend it with any confidence because I don't have personal experience with it, and there is not much information about it online. I've seen some glimpses of the marking system in online videos, and it has small markings in all four corners, each of which shows the value and suit.
● Honor Marked Deck by J L Magic (Maiden Back). The markings of this deck are very well hidden on the body and hair of the maiden on opposite corners of the deck. It is a reader deck and is currently still available, but the markings are very small, so it is generally considered to be impractical to use, especially in comparison with the better options available.
● Maiden Marked Playing Cards (Maiden Back). Not to be confused with Penguin's Marked Cards, despite the similar name, this deck does use alphanumeric markings. But they are graphical markings that are not easy to decipher at a glance, which in practice almost turns it into a coded system rather than a reader system. But it does have the advantage that it includes markings for the Tamariz stack, including the identity of the previous card in the stack.
Many younger magicians would balk at the hefty price tags that were commanded by these early factory printed decks, such as the Ultimate Marked Deck, which still retails for $40. But at the time these came out, the concept of a printed Bicycle-branded marked deck with a reader system was still somewhat new, and magicians were happy to spend that kind of money on a versatile and quality marked deck like this, given how ground-breaking it was. And of course you weren't just paying for the materials, but for the secret and the innovation. The price point of a lot of magic products is determined by a large number of different factors, which can include small print runs, development costs, and more, and isn't always as simple as what consumers seem to think when they just consider the cost of materials.
Over the last 15 years the playing card industry has been revolutionized with the help of Kickstarter. Improved technology also means it is easier to produce a custom deck than ever before. Corresponding to these developments are cheaper prices, which is why the newer GT Speedreaders from 2019 and the Penguin Marked Decks from 2017 are so much more affordable than any of their predecessors. Both of those marked decks will only set you back around $10-15 at most. Clearly we're now in a new era where a quality factory printed marked deck is becoming more normal, and this is also reflected in the price.
For example, the Boris Wild Marked Deck has elements about it that other marked decks don't have, and those options might just be what you're looking for in a marked deck. Depending on your needs and wants, it might even be the top deck for you to consider, given that it's not just a marked deck, but offers a system that becomes its own utility tool. All of the above are top choices, excellent factory printed Bicycle-branded marked decks, and are worth knowing about and considering.
Clearly we are spoiled for choice today. It's only when you consider what magicians had available in the way of marked decks two decades ago that we will start realizing how good we have it.
Where to get them: The four decks covered in this article can be found here:
● Boris Wild Marked Deck by Boris Wild (Maiden Back)
● Ultimate Marked Deck by Magic Dream (Rider Back)
● GT SpeedReader by Garrett Thomas (Mandolin Back)
● Marked Cards by Penguin Magic (Maiden Back)
See a complete range of other marked decks over on PlayingCardDecks.com here.
Previous articles in this series (Marked Decks for Magicians - A Definitive Guide):
● Part 1: Why do magicians use marked decks?
● Part 2: What is the best marked deck for card magic?
Acknowledgement: It is important that I provide readers with thorough and reliable information. So I want to acknowledge the assistance of many people I corresponded with when researching and writing these articles, especially numerous individuals who were personally involved in creating these decks. They kindly provided me with answers to specific questions I had along the way, and also reviewed relevant parts of the text to ensure that the information I included was up-to-date and accurate. I especially want to acknowledge the input of Kevin Reylek, who is an expert on the subject of marked cards, and whose assistance was invaluable. Kevin was extremely helpful in ensuring the accuracy of many fine details, and very generous in pointing me in the right direction and in providing me with the information I needed.
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.