In the world of indie tarot decks, Lisa Sterle’s Modern Witch Tarot has been highly anticipated for quite a long time. The first tarot illustration she posted on Twitter was all the way back in March 2017—the Ten of Swords, depicted as a girl casually checking her phone while the swords jutted out of her body and labeled “Everything Is Fine.” The next one, the Fool, wasn’t posted until more than six months later, but more illustrations of the major arcana followed. In April 2018, she officially announced that she would be producing an entire deck and that it would be published by Liminal 11. Preorders opened in May of 2019 and finally, in November, the deck officially launched. It has been a long stretch, but Sterle’s fans have waited as patiently as they could, and the hype for this deck has been real. I was definitely excited to finally get my hands on it.
I’m reviewing the standard version of the deck—it comes in a hard slipcase box and includes a black velvet bag with the Modern Witch emblem embroidered in gold. (They also released a now-sold-out limited edition version that came in a gold tin box and included an enamel pin, patch, and tarot scarf.) The box is quite high quality and so are the cards themselves. They’re a little glossier than I’d normally prefer, but I’m sure the high gloss appeals to some folks, and they’re certainly not flimsy. The quality makes them enjoyable to work with, if a little hard to shuffle; the deck is a bit thicker than an average deck, which is slightly unwieldy in the hand. The accompanying guidebook is also surprisingly high quality. It’s pretty rare to see hardcover guidebooks and it’s cute that the tiny hardcover fits perfectly inside the box with the deck.
The Modern Witch Tarot is, at its core, a loving homage to the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Rider-Waite-Smith is the quintessential tarot deck in many ways and it’s extremely common for indie decks to be based on its model of symbolism and interpretation, but this is more than that. Sterle’s undeniably beautiful art seems to mirror Pamela Coleman Smith’s art style, which makes it feel more connected to the original than other decks I’ve used. This is most apparent in the limited color palette, which effortlessly evokes pleasant nostalgia for those familiar with Coleman Smith’s artwork. Sterle has described the deck as being inspired by “fashion and modern witches from every walk of life” and the art reinforces that. The clothing worn by the characters in the cards is well designed and lets Sterle’s art shine in its own right, even while maintaining the flavor of Coleman Smith’s aesthetic.
Some cards do genuinely bring something new to the table in terms of symbolism. I love the Chariot as a badass biker chick with a switchblade. I love the Moon, where the two wolves are replaced by witchy women in wolf masks. I love the Three of Pentacles, which depicts an artist hard at work in a figure drawing class, while another woman models for her sketch and a third stands beside, giving her feedback. It evokes something more than the original Three of Pentacles, really expressing the value of creative collaboration where each person involved brings their own talents to the table.
Other cards feel like redraws of the Smith artwork, updated with modern fashion and situations. And sometimes, that really works! There’s value in revisiting the traditional symbolism with a more diverse cast. I particularly like the Two of Wands. A card of travel and possibilities, it was represented in the original deck by a Christopher Colombus-esque explorer, and seeing the same scene depicted instead with a stylish, powerful woman of color feels profound. The Eight of Pentacles works too: I like how the pentacles themselves are in the same position as in the original card, and they both depict artists, but the way that the art is produced is updated from carving to digital graphic design. It’s very modern, in a good way!
Unfortunately there are other cards that feel lacking in the way of symbolism, like they’ve lost something from the originals. The Wheel of Fortune replaces arcane and mystical beasts with stylish and attractive young women, and it feels less magical. Some cards are exactly the same as the original with only updated clothing; some don’t have much modernization at all, particularly cards depicting naked characters who have no clothing to update. While the art is still beautiful, in a deck meant to be fresh and modern, they feel rather derivative. (It makes me wonder if Sterle was in a time crunch. Tarot decks are notoriously laborious to design—78 unique drawings is a lot of work!—and some of the best cards are some of the earliest ones revealed, like the Ten of Swords.) The fact that some cards have genuinely unique elements make the ones which don’t feel all the more off-putting.
That said, there’s still a place for this deck in a tarot collection. The reason so many decks are based on Rider-Waite-Smith is because that deck is important to a lot of people, myself included. I can appreciate the fact that it’s an homage because I get it, it’s important to me too. I appreciate that it retains some of the very specific symbolic notes that I’ve come to be familiar with, like how the Queen of Sword’s sword points straight up, but the King’s tilts to the side. If you’ve read from a RWS deck, you can read from this deck too—it’s similar enough that it reads almost exactly the same, which is a plus for some people who don’t want to learn a new system.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for something that really brings new insight to the cards, this isn’t necessarily the deck for you. But if you’re looking for an RWS replacement, this might be just the deck you’ve been waiting for. And I think that really is what some people are looking for—I’ve spoken with people who feel uncomfortable with the lack of diversity in the original RWS deck. I think it speaks to the time period it was created in, but it’s also a very valid reason to feel uncomfortable with using it! Modern Witch Tarot is a perfect response to that; you can get the experience of reading from a classic deck, without having to excuse the kinds of problems it has.
This is a solid, if safe, addition to the tarot catalogue available from Liminal 11, joining last year’s Luna Sol Tarot. I’m looking forward to seeing more new decks added to this lineup, and I only have to wait until next year because they’ve already announced their next two projects—the Cosmic Slumber Tarot by Tillie Walden and the White Numen Tarot by Alba Ballesta González, which both look delightfully unique and magical. Tarot lovers rejoice!