Belgium-based publisher Cartamundi is already arguably the biggest publisher of playing cards in the world. As a big player in the games and toy industry, they have 11 manufacturing plants around the world, and their popular Copag brand of playing cards can be found in casinos across the globe.
As further evidence of their clout is the recent news that Cartamundi has signed an agreement to take over the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) later this year. In the mean time, they have also become a growing presence in the custom playing card market. Not only have an increasing number of creators been using Cartamundi to produce their custom decks, but Cartamundi has also showed real signs of being willing to innovate and compete. Decks with their B9 True Linen Finish are becoming more and more popular, and beside this card stock and finish, they are adding other card stocks and finishes to the range of options available for buyers.
But how do the Cartamundi decks stack up? How are they different from the Bicycle decks available from USPCC, and what is their handling like? Let's find out in this article, by taking a closer look at some of the Cartamundi decks hitting the market.
Cartamundi's popular True Linen B9 Finish (with Superlux stock)
Let's begin by talking about their True Linen B9 Finish and Superlux stock, which was the most common Cartamundi card stock at the time Cartamundi began actively printing custom decks. You won't have to look far to find it, and you could introduce yourself to it by means of their Copag 310 range (NB: newer printings of these decks use the much thinner Slimline stock rather than the original Superlux stock), or some of the wide variety of other decks available in the B9 True Linen finish. Examples include Ondrej Psenicka's innovative Butterfly Playing Cards, the stunning Cobra Playing Cards, the Rubik inspired Kubik Playing Cards, and many others.
The first thing you'll observe is that the playing cards of decks with the True Linen B9 Finish and Superlux card stock make up a deck that is one of the thickest you'll have ever had in your hands. Especially for card flourishes, the increased thickness is immediately noticeable. But then comes a pleasant surprise: despite this extra thickness, it is a super soft stock. In fact, it's so soft that it brings to mind the thin-crush stock from USPCC in terms of how it feels and handles. As a result the cards handle perfectly straight out of the box, and you won't need to break them in at all. What's more, they also hold up well over time, due to the thickness, they won't quickly show signs of wear. This is a welcome attribute, especially when compared with the thin-crush decks from USPCC. The USPCC decks feel soft, but this comes at the cost of durability, and they will usually wear much faster than a normal deck. But this isn't a problem with Cartamundi's Superlux stock, due to the increased thickness.
Another difference from USPCC playing cards is that Cartamundi's True Linen B9 finish uses a different embossing pattern than most other decks. Rather than having a series of small dimples like a typical air cushion style deck from USPCC, it has a series of vertical and horizontal lines. This also explains the name "True Linen", since it's the pattern you'll find in linen textiles, which are made from the fibres of flax plants. This embossing pattern gives the cards a different look than what most of us are used to when they catch the light, but functionally their performance appears to be no different from the usual air cushion embossing design. The important thing is that they are embossed, and this enhances the motion of the cards as they slide over each other in fans and spreads.
Finally, Cartamundi's playing cards appear to have a smoother cut and cleaner edges than what you typically see in a USPCC deck. The overall result makes these cards a joy to handle. Some testimonials from big names in cardistry and magic confirm that I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for this card stock. Magician Shin Lim says "The B9 finish is soft, durable, and feels great in the hands." Magician Daniel Madison's comment is: "Arguably one of the finest finishes that I’ve experienced. I have no doubt that these will be the deck-of-choice for all future card-makers – including myself!” And noted cardist Jaspas Deck remarks: "“Angel feathers in card form. These cards feel great."
With super soft stock that is durable, and produces consistently even fans and spreads, it's hard not to love these decks, as long as you don't mind the thicker-than-normal card stock.
Cartamundi's newer C9 Finish
Despite the praise, not everyone is a fan of the B9 True Linen Finish, mainly due to its thicker card stock. Fortunately the critics haven't been left in the cold without other options. Cartamundi stepped up to the plate by releasing two other new card stocks that aren't quite as thick as the Superlux card stock. The first of these is their C9 card stock. Cartamundi's official designation for this is the 9C2, and they also refer to it as "the Touch finish". This hasn't been used for that many decks, possibly in part due to the fact that it has a considerably higher price tag. But among the very few decks that are available with the C9 card stock are the decks from Touch Cardistry (e.g. Pulse Cardistry deck) and the Ravn v3 deck from Stockholm17 and magician Caroline Ravn.
So how are the C9 decks different? The official Cartamundi marketing materials describe both the B9 and C9 decks as using "Superlux paper, 320gsm FSC, black core board, snappy, soft touch perfect for springs and aerials." But the ad copy for the Ravn decks describes the C9 decks as being lighter, with 310gsm black core paper. When comparing the two, the C9 decks are definitely slightly thinner than the B9 decks with Superlux stock. While they are still slightly thicker than your average USPCC produced deck, they don't feel quite as noticeably thick as a B9 deck, and this gives them a thickness that is more similar to a standard USPCC produced deck, and makes them more pleasant to use if you're used to handling USPCC produced decks. So while they do use a similar card stock to the B9 stock, my educated guess is that the core board is around 5gsm or 10gsm lighter. I've also been told that the more expensive and thinner C9 card stock can't take foiling, while the B9 card stock can.
Another difference is the embossing pattern used. Unlike the true linen finish of the B9 card stock, the C9 playing cards have a more traditional air cushion style embossing pattern, with small dimples spread out evenly on the surface of the card. I didn't find that the true linen finish of the B9 card stock handled differently, because the end result of the embossing seems to be the same. But the true linen look does take some getting used to, and although it's simply a matter of personal taste rather than functional difference, I personally prefer the look of the more standard air cushion style embossing, like that on the C9 decks.
The custom finish (varnish) used with the C9 decks is also different. It's been customized and optimized for flourishing, and the ad copy describes it as "a custom varnish, for an amazing feel and effortless fanning." The C9 decks also include the option of a bespoke cut, which presumably means that the deck is either a modern or traditional cut, depending on the choice of the creator. Due to the different card stock, embossing, varnish, and bespoke cut, the C9 decks are considered a higher grade playing card than the B9 decks, and that's reflected in the price difference. A recent marketing price list revealed that 1000 decks of B9 will cost creators €3.90 each, while 1000 decks of C9 cost €6.35 each.
In terms of how it looks and handles, the different type of embossing pattern is immediately noticeable, and while this doesn't really affect performance, it does affect the look and the feel in your hands. The C9 finish is much more along the lines of what we're used to with a USPCC produced deck, while the True Linen B9 finish looks quite different. Since the C9 cards are slightly thinner than the Superlux stock used for the decks first produced with the True Linen B9 finish, these decks also feel slightly softer. This overall result is that the handling will feel a lot like a crushed stock deck from USPCC, while having improved durability. It also means that they perform well straight out of the box, and will immediately serve you well for performing spreads, fans, and cardistry moves. While there hasn't been noticeable clumping, the cards aren't that slippery that you can't do cuts.
In other words, as far as handling goes, you really seem to get the best of all worlds with the C9 finish. But they are expensive to produce, and perhaps that's why there's only been a very small number of decks released so far that actually use it.
Cartamundi's newest SlimLine stock
Even thinner yet is Cartamundi's newer card stock, their Slimline stock, which Ellusionist describes as an "E7 stock" and uses for their marked Blue Cohort deck. The ad copy describes it as follows: "our brand new luxury pressed E7 stock in a vibrant blue, this is the crushed stock deck you’ve been waiting for. We worked hand-in-hand with Cartamundi to find an answer to ‘Bicycle Crushed' and boy did we deliver! People often comment on Cartamundi's stock... `Their stock would be perfect if it was just a bit thinner' ... NOW IT IS." Ellusionist had a six month exclusive on this stock, and it is also used for Ellusionist's just-released Marbles deck.
Cartamundi themselves announced the move to the new thinner stock as follows: "Since the first decks printed with the TRUE LINEN B9 FINISH ran off our production line, cardists, magicians and collectors have been telling us that our cards are just slightly too thick. At Cartamundi, quality is the core value, and we believe that acting upon community feedback is key to taking our products to the next level. This is also why we’ve been doing further R&D for the past year to create an improved paper stock that meets community expectations. The result is our proprietary SlimLine stock. While this new stock is significantly thinner (5-6 card to be more exact), we’ve made sure not to compromise the snappy feel and soft touch that distinguished the formerly used stock. With the release of this new stock across standard and custom decks, we believe we’ve come one step closer in our never-ending pursuit of mastery."
And wow are these ever thin! In all likelihood you'll find this to be the thinnest deck you've ever used! To illustrate: when placed beside a deck of the thicker Superlux card stock, you'll have to remove about six cards from the deck with the thicker stock to end up with a deck that is the same thickness as a complete Slimline deck. The product image from Ellusionist exaggerates the difference between the two decks, but even so it is thinner than a typical Bicycle deck with thin-crush stock. One suspects that this stock was developed as an alternative to USPCC's thin-crush stock, and that makes it of immediate and real interest.
Admittedly, because these cards are so thin, they might not hold up to the exacting standards required for some card flourishing, although that depends on the kinds of moves you do. Magicians may find that sleights like double lifts or colour changes come with the increased risk of bending the cards. As such the super thin Slimline card stock probably represents the other extreme in contrast to the thick Superlux stock, and some will find the Slimline stock too thin. But do they ever handle nicely! They feel super soft from the get-go, spring beautifully, and many cardists will absolutely love them. And unlike the thin but sloppy card stock of the Hidden King deck from BombMagic, these thin cards still feel snappy and durable.
As for the look of these cards, the Slimline card stock uses the "true linen" embossing pattern similar to that used on the thicker Superlux card stock. So they don't have the look of the traditional air cushion style that is used on the C9 card stock, and on most USPCC produced decks. As far as I can tell, this doesn't have much of an impact on the performance or handling, but mostly just affects the looks.
Those who are big fans of the thin-crush stock from USPCC, and who would like to experiment with something thinner yet, might just find this to their liking. It is the kind of game-changer that could even make Cartamundi converts from some USPCC fan-boys. And early reviews have been extremely positive, with comments like these from buyers: "This is absolutely one of my favorite decks I’ve ever owned. They handle like a dream." (J.R. Pourchot). Another fan, Steve F, says "Amazing!! Cards feel unbelievable. So thin and soft. All Cartamundi decks should be printed with this stock. There other stock is a little too thick for me. But these are insanely thin and soft. I really was blown away. I am a USPCC guy but this really ups the competition." High praise also comes from Isaac Smith, who comments: "All I can say is WOW. These cards are phenomenal, and Ellusionist isn't kidding when they say that these are thin. By far the thinnest deck I've ever handled, they feel so soft."
The Cartamundi decks are especially worth checking out because of their soft stock. While the thicker cards of the B9 decks with Superlux stock won't be for everyone, there's no doubt that they handle as smooth as butter. And if you do want something slightly thinner, try something with the C9 card stock, like the Pulse Cardistry deck. But it's the thinner Slimline card stock that could especially make waves in the market place. At the time when Ellusionist had an initial six month exclusive on this stock, besides the marked Blue Cohort deck, the only deck with this finish was Ellusionist's Marbles deck. But many other custom decks have been printed with the thin stock since, so if you're a fan of crushed stock, it's definitely worth checking some of these out. If this proves to be a success, especially for fans of thin-crush stock, we could be seeing a lot of custom cardistry decks using the SlimLine stock in years to come.
What also excites me about the Cartamundi decks is the excellent print registration. USPCC decks are known to often feature print registration errors, resulting in misaligned borders. Especially when a deck has been designed with relatively narrow borders, this can present a real problem, and more than a few buyers have been disappointed with a USPCC-produced custom deck for this reason alone. I've not noticed any such issues with the Cartamundi decks. In fact, the Blue Cohort deck I have features very narrow borders, and yet the printing is spot on. This is an important quality that will be a very welcome for playing card designers and consumers, especially in cases of decks that do have narrow borders.
I'm very pleased to see the rapid innovation that Cartamundi has been displaying, and welcome their increased presence in the custom playing card industry. It can only be a good thing when there are more options for consumers. There's a growing number of custom decks with the B9 True Linen Finish arriving in the market place, and we are seeing some big name publishers like Ellusionist opting to partner with Cartamundi as the printer of some of their decks. It continues to be an exciting time for cardists and collectors, and with a big player like Cartamundi joining the fun, the future of our industry looks very rosy indeed!
Where to get them? See the full range of Cartamundi decks available on PlayingCardDecks.com here.
Update: As of the end of 2019, Cartamundi is no longer printing new decks using their thicker B9 stock, due to the bankruptcy of their supplier (see their press releases here and here). They've subsequently also amended their terminology. As a result, "True Linen B9 Finish" now refers to the embossing pattern only, and not to the stock, while the super-thin E7 stock is now just called "SlimLine Paper Stock". For more on this, see this post.
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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.