The first record of playing cards dates back to 9th-century China, which would place their invention around the same time as gunpowder and more than 500 years before the printing press. But their introduction to Western civilization didn’t come until the 14th century, when Islamic expansion brought them via trade routes. Cards then were also tools to conjure prophecies of the future; today, this fantastic mythology is still a part of playing cards’ allure, often used for purposes of magic and illusion.
Europeans were quick to develop their own deck, the tarot, categorized by four suits, numbering one through 10, with four high-ranking face cards, the King, Queen, Knight and Knave (or Jack). Tarot decks could also include any number of trump suits as well a Fool card, which later became known as the “Joker”.
Because they were painted colorfully and ornately by hand, production of the cards couldn’t keep up with their popularity for purposes of gaming, gambling and occult practices. Like books, cards were once reserved for the upper social classes until manufacturers of the early industrial age shifted production to the printing press.
If industrialization made decks slimmer, more affordable and widespread, it also dropped playing cards’ early emphasis on lavish decoration. They became utilitarian and direct. Eventually, the standardized deck shrank to 52 cards, eliminating trump suits and Knights, and replacing ones with Aces. Across the English Channel, and later in the American colonies, decks adopted the French suit symbols well known today, with numbers in red and black. Backs became monochromatic, most often printed in red or blue.
Today, thanks to the demand of collectors, magicians and general enthusiasts, graphic cards are making up for lost aesthetic ground. We asked our friends at Art of Play, a one-stop shop for the best of designer cards, to help curate a list of their favorite decks from small-batch manufacturers around the country. More than just cards to play with, these decks are venues of artistry and design, reimagined classics that make age-old games with friends feel fresh and new. Click on any image to learn more.
Best Made Co. Famous
Best Made Co. in New York designed this deck with larger numbers and had it printed by the United States Playing Card Company in Erlanger, Kentucky.
Dan & Dave Antler Limited Edition
Flourished with twin bucks, the back of this deck was designed to evoke the lush landscape of Yosemite National Park in California. Each is packaged with parchment paper and sealed with a perforated stamp.
Dan & Dave Voltige
This deck was designed by Henri de Saint Julien & Jacques Denain (who also produced a more expensive but interesting Tungstene deck) and comes packaged in a soft-layered box that opens vertically, instead of from the the top. It also revives the one card in place of the Ace.
Misc. Goods Co.
Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, this deck comes from Tyler Deeb at Misc. Goods Co., with production limited to 10,000 decks; Deeb has vowed it will never be reproduced.
Pocono Modern The Retro Deck
This collaborative deck from Joe Morelli and Pocono Modern takes inspiration from Mid-Century design and is printed by the United States Playing Card Company.
Deckstarter x Draplin Design Co. Thick Lines
From the same designer who brought you Field Notes, Aaron Draplin, this deck oozes ’70s with its thick lines and warm color spectrum.
Zach Mueller Fontaine
Designed by magician Zach Mueller, the Fontaine deck is offered in red, blue and black, each carrying its own understated elegance. They’re in limited supply, so grab them while they last.
The Hotcakes deck is the fifth in Uusi’s six-deck series, and colored with tempera paints and markers for a playful Pop Art style that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Dan & Dave x Art of Play PRIME
This collaborative effort from Dan & Dave and Art of Play was designed and illustrated by Ben Newman of the United Kingdom. The borderless design performs well in illusions.
Dan & Dave Ace Fulton’s Casino
Once offered as a souvenir from Ace Fulton’s Casino in Las Vegas, this retro deck from Dan & Dave has been revived in two colors with a contemporary stock and finish.
Dan & Dave HMNIM
Produced for Hi My Name is Mark, the apparel line of Blink 182 bassist Mark Hoppus, this nautically inspired deck is gaudy and refined, embossed with a UV coating that shimmers under light.
Dan & Dave Vintage Plaid
Ideal for camping or that cabin in the countryside, this retro deck from Dan & Dave is available in two colors, Striking Arizona Red and Casual California Blue. Each is packaged and stamped in a leatherette case for a vintage feel.