• Which playing cards should I use for performing magic?

  • July 20, 2020

  • Whichever deck you prefer.

    But that is an incredibly dull and unhelpful answer, isn’t it?

    So let’s have a look at a few different types that I know of and enjoy using. Fair warning, if you recall yesterday, I mentioned the whole “Amazon Affiliates” thing? Yeah, today is the first time trying it out. Let’s see what happens.

    What kind of magic do you want them for?

    There are an ungodly amount of different varieties of playing cards on the market. They range in size from the decks you can get in a Christmas cracker, up to novelty-sized cards that are around the size of an A4 sheet of paper. They are great fun and a pleasant novelty, and in many ways, they all have a use in magic in one form or another. But again, that isn’t very helpful in narrowing down the options.

    Seriously, if you want to lose a day very quickly, just go and look at how many different playing card companies, makes, styles, designs and so on are out there, it’s absurd, and for a magician, fantastic.

    That’s why we’re going to assume (there’ll be a lot of that going around today) that you want them for close up card magic and to be an all-purpose deck, rather than a speciality deck for a one-off magic trick. Bigger decks are great for stage shows, but that is a whole other kettle of fish.

    What size should they be?

    Since we know you’re going for close-up magic, be that at a table, standing, or roaming around the room, that means you are going to want a “normal” sized deck of cards.

    By “normal” I mean that they aren’t a suspicious size, they fit in the human hand relatively well, are a manageable size and are recognisable to your audience as a “standard deck of cards”. That means you will want a deck that is either “poker” or “bridge” sized. I personally prefer poker-sized as they are a little wider than the ever so slightly taller bridge cards.

    What design should I go for on the back of the playing card?

    Before I go any further, I realise this might seem like sucking eggs, but you would be amazed at how much this sort of thing matters to a magician. The backs of the playing card are very important! I mean it!

    When it comes to the backs, there are two main types of designs and a variation that can be applied to either style:

    • Pattern Back

    This is your standard playing card back that you know and love, the far majority of decks have a pattern back, which means the cards are reversible. The design is usually intricate and/or geometric.

    • Picture Back

    If you’ve ever seen a novelty deck of cards available from a gift shop, or someone had a custom deck of cards created, that makes them one of these. The most important thing, is they are non-reversible, so if one card is re-inserted to the deck upside down, it is very obvious which card that is. (Do what you will that information)

    • White Bordered

    One of the most important things to be aware of is whether or not the deck of cards has a white border on its back around the edges. This may seem insignificant, but for some magic effects, it is crucial to have this edge, and in others, it is crucial not to have this edge! I prefer to have it personally, but that is because I don’t perform the kind of effects that work better without it.

    What should the cards be made of?

    Now, for the most part, this is down to personal preference. But then so is everything, so as ever, well done Max for another wholly unhelpful sentence. You’re just trying to add to your word count, aren’t you?

    Sorry, got a bit carried away there. What I will say is that you should be looking for cards made from card stock. I’m not an idiot; card stock is basically thick paper. The important thing is that you will want to stay away from plastic playing cards as they tend to stick together, rather than smoothly spreading out when you want to do a flourish such as a one-handed fan, or even a simple card spread to ask a volunteer to pick a card.

    The other problem with plastic cards is how hard they can be to manipulate, even when doing something like a riffle shuffle, they are just too stiff, which is no fun at all. Yes they last longer, yes they are waterproof, yes they can survive all kinds of environments, but we don’t care about it, do we? We want an all-round close-up magic deck, which means smooth, soft and to be made of paper.  

    How much should they cost?

    Remember what I said about personal preference? Right, sorry, I’ll shut up. Figuratively.

    Most decks of cards cost less than £5 (around $7 US). These decks make for great “practice” decks, and you can probably find some at your nearest convenience store or petrol station. But they will be plastic coated, so not what you’re looking for if you want that smooth finish.

    Lots of magicians all over the world, and card fanatics such as cardistry performers, have created their own custom cards that I would highly recommend, but for the most part, they tend to be around £15-£20. They are well worth the money and I highly recommend getting a set for when you perform at a high-end gig.

    However, that isn’t what we’re looking for; we want a good sturdy deck that we can destroy during practice, and look good with when performing. Now to get some suitable options, we are going to be looking to buy in bulk, so a “brick” of cards, that way the cost per deck comes down and you save some money. Who doesn’t like saving money on a high-quality product!?

    So what do you recommend?

    Well, that’s an easy question to answer. The same ones I use and have been using since I started buying playing cards to perform with at gigs. Bicycle Cards.

    Bicycle is a brand that is manufactured by the United States Playing Card Company, the USPCC, and they have been producing playing cards since 1885. So they know a thing or two about making cards. Now you don’t have to go with Bicycle per se, but I would highly recommend any deck of playing cards produced by the USPCC such as; Tally-Ho, certain Ellusionist decks and quite a few of those custom decks I mentioned.

    Another advantage of Bicycle playing cards is that if you do go ahead and buy them, most “trick decks” or “gimmicked decks” that are sold at magic shops, are made by the USPCC with their Bicycle brand. So you can switch them out with your audience none the wiser.

    I currently have around 100 decks of playing cards sat behind me, and over 50 of them are bicycle playing cards. I buy bricks regularly from Amazon. They come in bricks of twelve packs, six red and six blue. They are a fantastic deck to work with, a lot of which is thanks to their (I think) patented “Air-flow” finish that makes them ideal for magicians.

    If you’re interested, here is that Amazon link I promised. Check them out, and you won’t be disappointed (and when you buy this brick, it works out at only just over £2/deck!).

    Bicycle Standard 12 Decks Packs US Playing Cards Company, Red and Blue

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