Marked Decks for Magicians, Part 2by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
As a collector, I love all kinds of marked decks. They're especially wonderful for card magic, and I've outlined some of the advantages of using marked playing cards in my previous article: Why do magicians use marked decks? A good argument can even be made that they are worth using not only for tricks that require a marked deck, but for all your card magic.
But not all marked decks are created equal, and a magician will have very specific requirements. And that's exactly what this next article is about. If you're into card magic, what is the ideal marked deck that you should be looking for?
From my own experience with playing cards and with card magic, I've quickly learned that not all marked decks are actually practical or functional. When performing card magic with a marked deck, you need more than just a marked deck. You need one that has the right attributes that will actually help rather than hinder your magic, and that narrows the field significantly. So what would a marked deck preferred by a working magician look like? Let's consider some essential characteristics.
Essential characteristicsIn theory the characteristics of the ideal marked deck are quite straight forward and obvious. The markings need to find a balance between two key qualities, both of which should be true under performing conditions:
a) the markings must be easily read by you as magician
b) the markings must not be easily detected by your audience
So a marked deck must look as normal as possible, so that it won't draw attention to itself or give away the secret, and the markings must not be obvious to the lay-people you are performing to. And yet the markings must make your job as a magician as easy as possible. In practice, that means the following elements are important for the ideal marked deck:
1. It should use a reader system. Most professional magicians prefer to have a marked deck that uses a reader system rather than a coded system. While a coded system may decrease the risk of being discovered, it also requires you to be far more observant while performing. Often it also gives you the added burden of needing to do some quick mental math in your head to figure out what the card in question is. When you're performing magic, you want to make your job as easy as possible, so that you can focus all your mental energy of good presentation. For that reason, a reader system makes the most sense. A coded system that relies on obscure symbols might be advertised as being impossible for your spectators to figure out. That may well be true, but it's not at all practical. You'll have enough to think about by focusing on your patter, presentation, and technique, without further cluttering your brain with the need to scrutinize the card back and decode things at the same time. That kind of multitasking will only detract from your focus and enjoyment of what you're doing.
2. It should have decent size markings. The markings also need to be large enough so that you can read them easily and quickly at a glance. A lot of marked decks receive praise from relative novices for having a marking system that is almost invisible and undetectable. It may be true that marked decks like this will stand up to close scrutiny and examination from your spectators. Tiny markings may be undetectable to spectators, but that also means that they're going to make your job as a magician much harder in reading them. This quickly becomes very impractical. I've seen a lot of comments from working magicians dismissing certain marked decks simply because the markings are too small, or because their eyesight isn't good enough to read them, especially as you get older. You don't want to spend any more time staring at the back than you have to, because even looking at the backs more than once comes at the risk of giving away that it's a marked deck.
3. It should disguise the markings sufficiently. Of course you don't want the marks so obvious that they scream to your spectators that it's a marked deck. In the best case scenario, you want a card back that has design elements which are ornate and decorative, and which will cleverly hide the markings to muggles, without making them too hard for you to read them. A good marked deck will place the markings within the artwork of the back design in a way that they will go unnoticed except to the very careful observer who studies them at length.
4. It should have markings on the long edges. The most common way of displaying a deck face-down is in a spread or fan. In either case, you'll only be seeing the long edges of the cards as they overlap. So it is quite critical that this is where the markings are, so that you can quickly identify a card in a spread. If the markings are in the center of the card backs, then you'll have no chance of seeing the identity of the card if it's being displayed as part of a spread. Again this is a characteristic that is determined primarily by the need to be practical and functional.
5. It should look as normal as possible. To take all the heat and suspicion off your deck, you want to give your spectators the impression that a perfectly normal deck is being used. For this reason most professional magicians want the tool of their trade to look identical to the deck they're using to perform all their other card magic. An unusual looking deck risks having spectators suspecting it to be a "trick deck", although the use of custom decks is slowly becoming more accepted. Another disadvantage of a deck with striking custom artwork is that it has the potential to distract from what you're performing, thus actually weakening your magic. So if you're doing card magic, ideally you want something that screams "normal deck", is beyond suspicion, and won't draw attention to itself. This also lets you give away cards from a non-marked version of the same deck to spectators without any risk of them ever finding anything fishy on the card backs.
Won't I Get Caught?To summarize, the ideal marked deck preferred by magicians should be as easy to read as possible, without the markings being too obvious, and ideally look like a normal deck. But that immediately raises an important question. If the markings are relatively easy to read, won't you get caught? Especially if you're using a deck with a reader system with decent size markings, won't that increase the chances that your spectators will discover the secret?
This is an understandable concern. But the short answer is: No. The risk of getting caught is actually very low. This is not fundamentally different from using any gimmick in magic, or for that matter any sleight of hand technique. Does the risk of getting caught stop you from using gimmicks or sleight of hand? Of course not. It's all about how you manage your spectators, and how you use your tools. If you use your marked deck in the right way, with well-constructed magic and with good audience management, then in practice your spectator will never even suspect your deck, or ask to examine the cards. Many professional magicians who used marked decks in all their card magic will tell you that they have never been caught, despite relying on a marked deck for hundreds of performances. It's all about using the right deck, and about using it in the right way. That is even more important than what the deck looks like.
The worst thing you can do is spend an extended amount of time staring at the card backs and then immediately calling out the card. That makes it super obvious that the deck is marked. But when you're using a deck that looks otherwise normal, there's no reason for your spectator to suspect your deck or feel any need to examine it closely. This is especially the case if you make sure there is a time delay between the brief moment when you catch your glimpse of the markings, and the moment when you use that information. Depending on the marked deck you're using, there are also techniques you can use that will enable you to speedily read the markings completely unnoticed.
That's why it's extremely rare for a marked deck to get discovered, especially if you're judicious about how and when you're using the markings, and if you're selective about tricks that combine this with other magic techniques. It's important to be as natural as possible, and catch your glimpses of the markings at opportune moments when you have a legitimate motivation to be looking at the deck. A deck with large markings that are easily read will actually help your cause, because if you're struggling to read and decipher small or cryptic markings, there's actually a much bigger chance that your spectators will notice you staring at the card backs.
One way you can help reduce the risk of getting caught is to first establish your credentials as a magician as part of a larger routine, by starting with a particularly strong trick. At that point your spectators will often drop their guard, and instead of trying to catch you out by spotting your sleight of hand or suspecting your props, they will instead just focus on enjoying your magic. And that makes the moment ideal for safely bringing your marked deck into play.
Bicycle Rider BacksSo what playing cards fit the criteria we have identified as important for the ideal marked deck? In the United States, and in many other parts of the world, the deck that looks as normal as possible is the classic Bicycle Rider Back. It's the deck that you'll see most performing magicians using on TV shows like Penn and Teller's Fool Us or on America's Got Talent. Available in either red or blue, this is the deck that almost everybody recognizes. It is widely stocked in supermarkets and game shops, and is one of the prime choices for serious and casual card games as well. For the average person, the Bicycle Rider Back is the quintessential "normal" deck. Almost everyone who sees this deck will identify it as a regular deck of playing cards, without you even needing to say a single word.
The Bicycle brand has been around since it was introduced in 1885. At the time these decks first came out, the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) needed a name for their new brand. Given that bicycles were the current rage in that time period, they opted for the name: Bicycle. They could never have imagined how popular these would become over the next 135 years. It's largely been a result of USPCC slowly swallowing up and absorbing its rivals, thus becoming a dominant giant in the playing card industry.
Bicycle has used numerous back designs over the years. But the 808 "Rider Back" design that originated in the late 19th century has become a classic. It shows a front view of a bicycle, ridden by the mythological winged figure of Cupid. Even by today's standards, the overall design is a strong one. It has white borders, which make it very practical for card magic and for card games. The overall shape is a symmetrical pattern that cleverly gives the impression of a bicycle with pedals in the center. Meanwhile the edges of this design are highly decorated with Cupid-like figures, heart shapes, and an intricate arrangement of ornate lines and dots.
To a modern audience, the faces of the standard Rider Back will look immediately familiar. Over time and by sheer mass usage, the design of the court cards, the shape of the pips, and the style of the indices, have effectively become an industry standard. It has proven to be the benchmark that most other playing cards aspire to become and will be compared with.
Maiden Backs and Mandolin BacksOver time, the United States Playing Card Company has come to realize the value of their popular design, and so they've also taken steps to legally protect their intellectual property. They are very aware that the distinctive aspects of the Bicycle Rider Back design are closely associated with the Bicycle brand, and they want to keep it that way. But their designs are too old to be properly protected by copyright law, having entered the public domain. So instead, they've turned aspects of the design into trademarks, to prevent them being copied and reproduced by other printers. They have even trademarked the designs of their signature Ace of Spades and Jokers, and the design of the card backs.
This step has had a practical consequence, because it means that it is no longer possible to print a deck with a Rider Back on the artwork of the card backs unless it is completely identical to the trademarked Rider Back design. Any changes to this design risk diluting the value of this intellectual property and weakening its legal protection as a trademark. As a result, USPCC no longer permits alterations to this design.
Previously it was possible to make minor adjustments to this design, as would be necessary for a marked deck, and you may still find some older decks in the marketplace that tinker with this classic back design. But as from about a decade ago, printing new decks with alterations to the classic Rider Back design is no longer allowed. The colours can still be changed, but not the actual design itself. In other words, under the current rules, it's no longer possible to have a factory-produced marked Bicycle Rider Back deck.
But the folks over at USPCC aren't stupid, and they realized that while it would be a smart move to protect their intellectual property, it would be a stupid move to shut magicians out from a product that they want and need, and to dry up a guaranteed source of steady income. So they came up with a compromise: a new back design that looks very much like a Rider Back deck, but isn't. In fact, they came up with two variant designs: the Maiden Back (model 813), and the Mandolin Back (model 809). The Mandolin Back first appeared around the middle of 2010, after being developed under the direction of magician Paul Harris, and with later involvement from Murphy's Magic to apply it to existing gaff decks. The following year Theory11 developed the Maiden Back for USPCC as another alternative back design, and it was announced in early 2012.
Both of these alternative designs at a quick glance have the look and feel of a Rider Back deck. In fact, for all intents and appearances, in the mind of your average spectator they are identical. But unlike the Rider Back design, the Maiden Back and Mandolin Back designs aren't subject to the same stringent protective legalities, making them fair game for modifying and for a marked version. This was a very deliberate move by USPCC to enable Rider Back look-alikes to be published in gaffed and marked versions. The Mandolin Back was even deliberately marketed to magicians, with the idea that these card backs could be modified however magicians wanted (subject of course to USPCC approval), while still looking for all intents and purposes to the casual observer exactly like a "normal deck". Experienced magicians will confidently tell you that audience members won't ever notice the difference.
Bicycle-branded marked decksWe've already established that the best choice for a marked deck for card magic will be a Bicycle-branded deck. And in light of how USPCC has been handling their Bicycle brand, today that will most likely be a deck with a Maiden Back or Mandolin Back design. There are still some marked decks on the market that use the Rider Back design (e.g. the Ultimate Marked Deck from Magic Dream), but they are in limited supply, and in light of the above developments, they can no longer be reprinted. Any newer USPCC deck that has gimmicked backs of any kind can be expected to come either in a Maiden Back or a Mandolin Back design.
Does this matter? Not really. All of these decks feature the same overall design and look, including a winged figure at the center of the symmetrical design. It's only when you look closely and compare it with an actual Rider Back that you'll notice the difference. For the vast majority of people, these decks will escape any close scrutiny, and look exactly the way they are intended to look: like a perfectly normal deck that is beyond any suspicion.
Of course it's also possible to make your own marked cards using a Bicycle Rider Back deck. But then you'll have to use a coded system that you implement yourself by scratching off the ink in select parts of the back design, or by using a white marker. Typically you'll need marks in several places, one to indicate the suit, and another to indicate the value. There are published works by Bob Farmer, Pete McCabe, and others that will teach you clever ways to mark decks in this way, and which take advantage of small details in the Rider Back design. Along with the systems they teach, these authors also have good materials on using marked decks, so they are worth knowing about.
Some magicians do make their own marked decks using these systems, but it is typically quite labour intensive. What's more, the end result is a coded system, and so it's little wonder that most people instead opt to purchase a good factory-produced marked deck with a reader system. Not only does this save you a lot of work, but it's also easier to read.
RecommendationsThe good news is that there are some excellent factory-printed Bicycle-branded decks that meet the criteria that I've discussed: a printed deck with a reader system with easy-to-read markings, and that uses either the Bicycle Rider Back design or one of its siblings, the Bicycle Maiden Back or the Bicycle Mandolin Back. In a follow-up article, I'll cover some of the best marked decks that fit into this category, but here is a advance peek of my top recommendations, listed in order of when they first appeared on the market:
Basic reader decks:
● 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)
Advanced reader decks (using a stack):
● 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)
There are of course many other excellent marked decks, both with coded systems and with reader systems, and I plan to cover some of the best alternatives too. But if you're serious about card magic, and are looking for an ideal marked deck like the ones preferred by working magicians, you'll definitely want to consider one of these options. If you want something inexpensive, you can't go wrong with the Marked Cards (Bicycle Maiden Back) from Penguin Magic or the GT Speedreader (Bicycle Mandolin Back) from Garrett Thomas. Both of these are excellent value and are in the $10-15 price range. In my next article I'll take a closer look at these two decks along with their closest competition.
Where to get them: See a large range of marked decks over on PlayingCardDecks.com here.
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.