This is a somewhat hot topic in the Tarot community – what are the characteristics of a “Tarot” deck and how does it differ from a standard “Oracle” deck? To answer this question, we need a little bit of background on the Tarot itself. 

Traits of a Tarot Deck 

Tarot cards emerged in the mid-1400’s in Europe originally as a playing card game (there’s speculation that similar card systems were used in other parts of the world before the emergence of the Tarot, however, there hasn’t been any solid evidence found to support this). Several countries began using them for divinatory purposes and by the 1700’s a solid system was born. 

The common traits of the older Tarot systems (Thoth, Rider-Waite-Smith & Tarot of Marseilles have 56 cards making up a “minor arcana” (broken up into 4 suits), along with 22 trump cards or “major arcana” cards. Most would argue that, in order to be considered a true “Tarot” deck, the cards need to have at least these traits. 


Traits of an Oracle Deck

As for “Oracle” decks – these card systems usually contain anywhere from 20-60+ cards and follow their own systems. They can have one or several “categories” that the cards are broken up into. Basically, any card deck used for divination that doesn’t contain a distinct “major arcana” and “minor arcana” would be considered an Oracle deck. 


What About Non-Traditional Tarot Decks? 

Now, there are some divination decks on the market that are labeled “Tarot” decks that go against the traditional format of the Tarot system. For example, the Dreams of Gaia Tarot contains 81 cards versus the traditional 78 (there are 25 Major Arcana cards). In addition, the arcanas don’t follow the traditional divinatory meanings established by the Rider-Waite-Smith system. One could argue that these two discrepancies are enough to classify this deck as an “Oracle” deck rather than a “Tarot” deck. I, however, would disagree. 

For me, as long as the two separate arcanas are maintained, with the minor broken into 4 suits, I personally classify the deck under the “Tarot” category. 

The major arcana follows a journey. That journey can be changed, depending on the deck’s creator, but there’s a distinct journey taking place with a beginning and end (and several lessons in between!). 

The 4 suits of the minor arcana are also journeys, but on a smaller scale. There’s a story told in the first 10 cards, with the 4 remaining cards of the suit acting as archetypes. Usually, these archetypes are represented as “Court” cards – Page, Knight, Queen and King. However, I don’t think these specific archetypes are required. Another example of a small deviation would be The Wild Unknown Tarot, which uses Daughter, Son, Mother, Father as their 4 principle archetypes in each suit. I would still classify this deck under “Tarot”. 


Deck Use & Learning to Read the Tarot 

So, with all that being said, if you’re new to the Tarot system, which decks do you use? Here’s the thing – I’ve been working with Tarot and Oracle decks for over 15 years, and I still get surprised. Whether or not you have a strict definition of a “Tarot” deck is your own personal preference! REALLY – at the end of the day, the cards’ symbology and how you interpret it matter more than anyone’s definitions. 

My recommendation though, when starting out, is to first use a deck based on the Rider-Waite-Smith system. Yes! I know I just said the system doesn’t matter; HOWEVER, we have access to more information on the traditional divinatory meanings of this system than any of the others. If you want to read “traditional tarot”, then learning this system first gives you a great foundation to build from. 

If being traditional is not your thing, then choosing an Oracle or Tarot deck that you’re drawn to is perfect! The key is to make sure that you PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Get familiar with the deck’s symbology and what those symbols mean to you. 


That’s my two cents, lovelies! I would love to hear what your thoughts are on these systems in the comments below – or you can message me with any questions you might have. Happy card-slinging! 

Brightest Blessings, -Cory Gunn, CCH