Is there anything as satisfying as digging into the shrink wrap of a brand new deck of cards? Heck no! So today we’re pulling off the plastic and taking a look at the newest oracle deck from US Games, Secrets of the Mystic Grove.
Secrets of the Mystic Grove came out in June 2017. It contains 44 cards with images by Portland-based artist Mary Alayne Thomas. The accompanying book is by Arwen Lynch. (Lynch has previously co-authored the Fairy Tale Lenormand with Lisa Hunt. Mystic Grove is Thomas’ first oracular offering.)
I’m pretty much a dedicated Tarot reader, and I like my cards with a bit of bite to ‘em. Oracle decks are not usually my cup of tea. I bought this deck because my wife fell in love with the cover image on one of the publisher's catalogs I left lying around the house. But don’t worry. I’ll give it a fair shake, even though it is an oracle deck (and a purdy one, at that).
First, the packaging. The deck comes in a cardboard box with a lid that lifts off. The inside of the box is lined with Dutch-blue paper. The cards fit neatly inside, along with the 96-page perfect-bound guidebook. The book has color covers and a black-and-white interior.
When I received Mystic Grove from the friendly UPS man, I was initially surprised at the small size of the box. US Games has the habit of packaging their oracle decks in larger boxes with lots of space around the cards. (The cards themselves are a standard size, 3.5 inches by 4.75 inches.)
After a moment of consideration, I decided that I actually prefer the smaller box. It’s far more practical for tucking an oracle deck into a purse or bag. And it’s easier to cram onto the shelf with your already burgeoning collection of Tarot decks.
The 44 oracle cards look fine as can be. They’re printed on good, bright stock with a slight gloss. It really brings out the vibrant colors of this deck. They have rounded corners and borderless (full-bleed) printing. The size is agreeable, too. Not so big that it’s awkward to shuffle, but large enough to accommodate the artwork.
The image on the back of the cards is a green-blue watercolor gradient with a drawing of peonies. Very soothing. Not reversible.
What else can I say? Oh yeah. Stick your nose in the box—the new deck smell is on point.
The best oracle decks have either eye-seducing images, or a useful original concept, or both. (Spoiler alert: Mystic Grove won’t score many originality points for its concept. It fits pretty squarely within the “gentle illustration + inspiring message” genre of oracle decks.)
Mary Alayne Thomas’ mixed-media illustrations are truly luscious to behold, with their palette of floral and jewel tones. Woodland creatures and birds populate dreamy gardens and twilight woods. Most of the cards feature young women, or animals, or both. There are no men in this deck—just one image of what could be a boy (but I don’t want to assume) on the back of a tiger. It’s a highly imaginative, visually sumptuous homage to nature’s own creations.
Thomas works mainly in watercolor, with layers of silk-screening and encaustic (pigment in wax) building up the painted images. It results in subtle rich colors, not wishy-washy like watercolor can be. The layered pigments give the paintings a dimensional quality—like looking at colored silks through a window of oiled paper.
There are a lot of influences at play here: Art Nouveau posters with their swirling locks, the thin black lines of Edwardian-era storybook pictures, the pensive dames and bright canvases of the Pre-Rapahelites, the carefully studied watercolors of botanical illustrations. If you like any of those things, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in Mystic Grove. (I love all of those things, so it goes without saying that Thomas’ art makes me weak in the knees.)
Some of the cards suffer a little bit from sameness. Cards 2 and 3 are very similar compositions, for instance, and I wonder about the decision to place them consecutively. The unified art style means readers may have to work harder to tease out the divinatory meanings from each card.
One more thing about the art: I cheered when I saw these were actual paintings on illustration board. There are some fine digital-art decks out there, to be sure—but it’s just not the same as images created by hand, by a person, that have a master copy somewhere. (At least, not yet.) Every time I focus in on a card and see those little nubbins of textured paper, my heart skips a beat with glee.
The book is a compact, attractive little guide to the themes of each card. It doesn’t reproduce the card images inside, which is groovy—who really uses the book without the deck nearby?
Arwen Lynch provides descriptive interpretations of the images, each in a couple of paragraphs. The text is accessible and direct. It's helpful in digging out specific, tough answers from cards that may look innocuous at first glance.
Each card meaning is followed up with three journaling prompts, to open the querent to further contemplation. There’s a space below to write down your thoughts.
The journaling prompts are an excellent addition to oracle deck practice. They invite you to continue digesting a reading long after the cards have been put away. I could do without the two-thirds of a page of lines for note-taking, which just looks like filler. (It’s better filler than a black and white picture of the colored card you’re holding in your other hand, but still. Mama taught me not to write in books, so it's not much use to me.)
The front and back pages are sparse—just a short product description, a “How to Use These Cards” tutorial, and a three-card spread. These instructions may be my favorite part of the book: “Find yourself a quiet spot. Make yourself a beverage you can enjoy.”
What? Why has no oracle deck ever offered me a beverage before? Hmm...don't mind if I do. It's a timely reminder to be kind to yourself, and remember that divination is sacred play. Mystic Grove just may become my go-to deck for lazy summer weekends, pitcher of mimosas in hand.
Working with Secrets of the Mystic Grove
Most people use an oracle deck for daily inspiration, introspection, and encouragement during challenging times. Mystic Grove is well-suited to all of these tasks. I received the deck on a particularly crummy day, and I was surprised how much just thumbing through the deck gave me comfort and food for thought.
Each card has a number, title, and three or four keywords to help to interpret it in readings. As is often the case with oracle decks, a lot of the card titles sound rather similar. How is “Release” different from “Letting Go”? The book offers some hints, but you may have to work with these cards for a while to learn all the nuances of their language.
Overall, the text on the cards is in good harmony with the artwork. Folkloric plants and animals pervade the world of Mystic Grove, often showing up in hairdos to underscore the message at the bottom of the card. So we have a beehive for “Community,” a badger for “Tenacity,” two puffed-up budgies for “Conflict.” It helps visually minded people—and those who relate to the natural world—to really get a grip on these cards.
When reading oracle decks, I’ve found that it's best to keep it simple. Of course, you can use your favorite Tarot-style spread with these cards, including the three-card spread provided in the book. But one-card draws are the quickest way to get a clear answer. Asking the cards, “What do I need to know?” or “How should I proceed?” will often yield productive insights about the current situation. Try to go beyond the keywords on the card, using the journaling prompts and your own intuition to flesh out the story.
Besides divination, you can use oracle decks for the magick of personal transformation. (As long as there are Tarot cards available within five miles, this is how I usually use my oracle cards.) In the above photo, for example, I’ve picked out the “Confidence” card (with a peacock, naturally). It’s propped up on a frame of gold, with a Citrine and a sprig of Rosemary. Can you guess? It’s a charm for increased personal courage and willpower.
Despite some issues with depth and range (common in oracle decks), Secrets of the Mystic Grove is a solid new release. If you’re drawn to the art style, it’s highly recommended. So far, it’s our favorite new oracle deck of 2017.
Mystic Grove will probably come to be known as, “You know, that one deck, with all the stuff in their hair…?” And it’s true—there are many, many ladies with improbable coiffures. But so what? This is a deck that makes you yearn for simpler times, when a girl could wear a bunch of crap in her hair without people whinging about cultural appropriation or the politics of Hobby Lobby or all the douchebags they met at Coachella.
Anyway, nothing says “Authenticity” like a headband made from a whole pheasant. Mystic Grove told me so.
(Full disclosure: I sell Secrets of the Mystic Grove in my online shop. I did not receive a free review copy or any other compensation, and the opinions in this review are all my own. Deck images are used for the purpose of review, and are copyright of US Games Systems, Inc.)