REVIEW: What is the best marked deck?

Dec 1, 2012
REVIEW: What is the best marked deck?

Every now and then I am asked about the "best" this or the "best" that.

But in magic there is no such thing as "bad" or "best" - what I've noticed is that we all love different things, use different things and we all have our very strong opinions... LOL

So how do you find the best marked deck?

Well, first you need to decide if you want a READER back ... or a CODED MARKING. In other words do you want the deck to just "SAY" 6 of clubs on the back or would you rather have a hidden mark that only you can decipher?

Ya see? We've already split into two different groups as to what we think is "best."

Then, do you want a "familiar" back design like USPCC makes? Or do you want something more custom and more mysterious?

Now we're narrowing in on picking out your "best" marked deck.

Here is an example of a marked / coded deck:

Here is a list of 10 marked and reader back decks that I own

And here are the two marketed decks that "I believe" are the best:

Of course the best marked deck is always the deck you make yourself, here is a short tutorial on how to save money and make your own

I hope that helps - and if you have questions about a particular marketed deck I will try to answer your question.
May 9, 2018
Although I don't typically use marked decks, I really like the marking on the 1800 series decks. There are at least 4 versions, since each time they re-released the deck, they changed the markings as well. I have 3 of them, but there is one that is marked in the left-center edge that I don't have. (That particular one is a bit more obvious and possible to catch compared to the others)

The reason I like them? Even though they are reader decks, and they can be read at a fair distance, the "cracked" inking hides it so well you can't detect it even by running a flip book reveal. As far as I know, it's the only deck series using this method for both marking the deck, and obscuring them.

Ironically this deck was available at a popular game shop here in town. I imagine a lot of their customers now have marked decks and don't even realize it. The person at the counter didn't even know about it when I first saw them there, and couldn't find the markings even when told they were marked. But once I showed her how to read them, she got every one correct.

It's pretty brilliant, and a great example of form before function.

PS: I'm a long time subscriber and have bought decks and the occasional magic thingy after seeing them in your reviews. Just sayin' :)
Mar 15, 2018
You're absolutely right that many people who own the 1800s deck don't even realize it is marked, or that it was created firstly for card magic.

I've actually written an article about this very deck that I think you'll enjoy reading: The Perils of Selling a Magic Product to the Mass Market

It was prompted by some of the negative reviews for the 1800s deck over on Amazon. Some of them are hilarious! As you probably know, this deck also comes with a duplicate Queen of Hearts with a different coloured back. What many customers didn't realize is that this is an extra gaff card, and quite a number of them wrote to complain that the deck was defective! One of my favourite comments is this one: "The first deck of cards (blue) that I ordered contained one red Queen of Hearts, so I ordered a second deck. Same thing with the second deck." Read the full article for more hilarity like this.
May 9, 2018
You're absolutely right that many people who own the 1800s deck don't even realize it is marked, or that it was created firstly for card magic.

Once a friend really loved one of the decks I have, so I bought him one. A few days later he was commenting on how weird there was an extra "malformed" card that had the same thing (the back) on both sides. He thought it was simply referencing the back design of both the cards and the box, and thought of it as a bit of a novel trophy.

I showed him, using his own deck, the classic trick the double backer is used for and he was blown away. Funny thing is, even after that he still didn't realize that it was that card that did the trick, even though he was just talking about it.

I haven't seen him for a long time these days. I wonder if one day he's fiddling around with the cards, rolls the deck over, and then it suddenly hits him...
May 9, 2018
I've actually written an article about this very deck that I think you'll enjoy reading: The Perils of Selling a Magic Product to the Mass Market

Good article. I'm surprised you didn't mention there is a strange quirk with the 1800 series: The red deck and the blue deck are *entirely* different in each of the different series. They feel completely different since one is far more matte than the other. They both handle well, but you would easily mistake them as being from completely different manufacturers. And in one of the series, the red has an additional layer of colour so the fading looks even more realistic.

Also in one of the series, the markings are tinted a sort of creamy white colour. I think that potentially stands out too much, but it still does look cool, and nobody I've shown the deck to has noticed - they all believe its an actual aged deck.

There are at least 4 different series of the 1800 deck, mainly differentiated by the marking position and style, plus the red one with two shades of red. I have 3 of them and only knew about the fourth because of it being shown on Google Images. I don't think there's even a way of specifying what version of the cards you want, and I've never seen the changes mentioned in any ad copy.
Mar 15, 2018
Ellusionist did create a "Series 1" and a "Series 2" of the 1800 decks, and there were some definite changes between them. With the help of the Internet archive, you can view the original product pages of the Series 1 deck and of the Series 2 deck.

From what I recall, Ellusionist didn't have much info about the differences between them on their actual product pages. But using the secret link provided on the ad card within the deck, you got access to a page with videos explaining the marking system. This page had separate videos you could pick from, depending on which version of the 1800s you had, due the changes between Series 1 and Series 2.
Oct 4, 2022
I can finally put in my vote, now that I have now collected a number, and I’d like to bring to attention a top contender, one some might not have even heard of: Taiwan’s very own, superb quality Empire Keeper! (Keep reading, if interested.)

I’ve collected Cohort Ghost, Bicycle Ultimate Marked Deck (UMD), the complained-about version of the Ellusionist 1800, the series 1900, Pioneer and Empire Keeper, plus my own marked with two different systems. I've also seen some other excellent systems.

Bike’s UMD are very nice and easy to read (but IMO too easily spotted if inspected). Top marks for being readable at a glance, but points taken off for the suit markings being too small. A big plus for looking like 808s, and a HUGE deduction for the outrageous $40 price.

Ghost and Pioneer are also easy to read, only slightly less so than UMD, but slightly better disguised if inspected (Pioneer especially, because the backs are so damned busy!) They both get extra marks for being priced far, FAR more reasonably, at a mere $8 postpaid (to anywhere in the world) for Ghost, and $10 PPD for Pioneer.

The Series 1900 with its unique non-reader system which David here has done a video on are outstanding as an inspectable card. I’m just starting to learn to read them, so the jury’s out on whether they’re easy enough to read at a glance. I love the look and will probably be in love with them once I finish learning to read them. They’re #1 in terms of inspectable, but low on the least in readability.

The corner-marked Ellusionist 1800 are absolutely unreadable (and worse so because I probably got stiffed with a poor reproduction sold online under the claim that they were legit). That’s a problem we have here in Taiwan, with China right next door.

But the Empire Keepers are really, really good. Not just in the marking. The quality is world-class in my opinion, with an air cushion as good as any Bicycle. They handle like butter, just top notch. The art is nice for those who like Chinese dragons (my birth year). The marked versions are only about US$8.70 locally, PPD. And gaffs are available to match at about US$0.17 per card.

The marks are harder for a spectator to spot than on Ghost and UMD but still readable for the magician, although I have to admit the values don’t pop out at you like UMD; they’re a bit on the thin side. But the suits are the best system I've ever seen. They are well disguised yet very readable and intuitive when you know what to look for, and they’re under 3 mm away from the value mark so you have NO glancing around to do.

In terms of being able to pass close scrutiny, should it happen (and ruling out the illegible 1800), the 1900 win, Empire Keepers are a clear 2nd, then Ghost and Pioneer are strong 3rd finishers (and a better balance of well hidden yet readable quickly), and UMD is worst hidden, most readable but least reasonably priced by far. So in my book, price included, Cohort Ghosts win for balance and price (with tasteful, subdued aesthetics).

The Empire Keepers, since I might be introducing them to some here, are widely available in many colors here in Taiwan. The marked are available in just two colors, a tasteful, subdued medium cobalt blue with double dragons on a floral background, and a similar version in red. Faces are classic all the way down to unremarkable AC, AH & AD with a single, normal-sized pip in the center. Three cards stand out, a fancy oversized spade for the ace of spades with the Empire Keeper's Dragon symbol in it, and the jokers, which are not jokers but rather dragons (one black, one maroon), with the same Chinese-style rampant dragon symbol, and "EMPIRE KEEPER" under all three latter cards. Gaff cards are also available in the same red and blue.

I don’t know whether they’re easily available anywhere outside Taiwan and perhaps adjacent countries. They’re available on, which has only a partial English interface. The sellers on this platform are probably not accustomed to requests to ship abroad, but I can vouch for the quality of some of the sellers, should anyone want to ask by PM.
EK cards.jpg
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