Ever heard of Ellusionist.com? For anyone interested in card magic, Ellusionist will already be familiar and somewhat of a household name. But for my friends here on BoardGameGeek, some introduction will be necessary.
Ellusionist's claim to fame is two-fold: magic, and playing cards. The chief face of Ellusionist is Brad Christian, who founded Ellusionist at the start of 2001. With an initial focus on training materials and supplies for magicians, they later broadened their reach by producing high quality custom playing cards, with a particular focus on classy and elegant decks particularly suited to magicians and poker players.
Brad's self-stated ambition was "to create the best online training environment for people who want to learn high-impact, effective magic tricks." His own journey into magic started at a young age, but it was especially a Doug Henning magic special that aired when he was 16 that really inspired him to study magic seriously. But it was only years later that he realized where his real strength was: teaching magic, with a special focus on newcomers to the art. And so Ellusionist was born, with Brad creating videos for his website, and slowly building the brand. In this review I'll be introducing you to one of their signature decks of playing cards, the revolutionary Black Tiger.
Ellusionist's own website describes their vision for their magic as follows:
"At Ellusionist, we have one goal: to give you the power to perform magic beyond belief. We want to make you the life of any party. We want to make you into a performer. Composed of 12 individuals, we barely sleep, and we will do anything necessary to bring you the best magic, the best talent, the best training and playing cards possible."
Clearly, they aren't lacking too many superlatives or modesty in their self-description! And they are selective and only want the best: “We only teach high impact, explosive magic, and we cut out the tricks that don't make that cut. Remember that trick that your uncle did that time at your 8th grade graduation? We don't teach stuff like that. We teach you how to perform miracles.”
But despite all these superlatives, the fact is that they are a fantastic starting point for the beginner looking to progress rapidly with magic, and they have some excellent resources to get you going quickly. I've used quite a few of their materials myself, and some of their DVDs that introduce street magic and card magic are excellent. They tend to be very well produced, and while they tend to be a bit strong on the hype they include, there are nearly always some good routines you can use. Their products aren't typically cheap, and they are good at marketing themselves, and this tends to make them somewhat unpopular with experienced magicians. But it has to be admitted that for complete newcomers Ellusionist can be a good way to get into magic, especially if you are a visual learner, and that Brad Christian is a very good teacher. So if you've seen David Blaine perform on TV and want a jump start to performing similar effects, Ellusionist is certainly going to be one way to do that (see their page on Blaine here).
Ellusionist's Playing Cards
But not only is Ellusionist well known for their magic teaching materials and supplies, but also for their custom playing cards. In their own words:
"We manufacture many of our own magic supplies, tricks, effects, and custom playing cards. We strive to create the very best magical products the world has ever seen. We work with the United States Playing Card co and have produced 14 lines of playing card decks that are repeatedly acclaimed by top industry pros and magic enthusiasts all over the world."
Magicians especially tend to favour decks of cards that are very functional, and where the artistic elements don't create too much distraction, while at the same time having a very classy and elegant look, that creates an immediate impression. Typical for these types of decks are very elaborate and impressive tuck boxes, as well as custom card backs, custom Jokers and Aces of Spades, and often custom court cards as well.
Ellusionist has made a name for themselves with a number of successful decks that meet these criteria, including the Arcane series and Artifice series, their black deck series, with the main star being the Black Tiger deck that I’m featuring in this review.
Black Tiger deck
The Black Tiger deck is a flagship deck that Ellusionist has been selling for over ten years.
The deck box is made of glossy card-stock, and immediately introduces the main concepts of the deck: a tiger, plus the simple colour scheme of black and white, with a splash of red.
The Black Tiger deck is engineered to be a very visual and high impact deck, and represents the first custom deck of playing cards many young magicians ever see. Their website claims that the first print run sold out within 96 hours. The second print run added even more features, "including black-light sensitivity and the highest quality card made by the US Playing Card Company."
So what is the Black Tiger? The deck's chief feature are the reversed images they use on the cards. They have a black card-back with a negative black and white image of the familiar Bicycle "rider-back". Here’s the card-back along with an Aces:
It's not entirely a negative image, since they've wisely kept the colour palette to black and white and red, to ensure good clarity and avoid any confusion between the suits.
The clubs and spades have black faces with white pips, while the hearts and diamonds have black faces with red pips.
All the court cards have a simple reversed image in black and white image, the black suits with white pips and the red suits with red pips.
So why might this concept be appealing? Here's the answer from Ellusionist: "The visual impact of the cards is startling. Voodoo, witchcraft, burned and blackened cards... mere concepts come alive with reverse image cards."
In addition to all the standard 52 cards and 2 jokers, there's also a gaff card (double-backer) that magicians will appreciate, and a company promo card, for a total of 56 cards.
Magicians will also be able to make use of the fact that there's a Queen of Hearts reveal on the tuck box lid.
Why a Black Tiger?
So what is the story behind these, and how did they even come about? Certainly they have been a big influence on magic performed with a black deck, and some would consider this to be the archetype of the genre. As for their genesis, surely Ellusionist is having a bit of a laugh with the following story, but it's an amusing story, and worth sharing in their own words, about how designer Michael Kelley came up with the idea:
"Years ago, Kelley was engaged in an interesting e-mail correspondence with a dethroned Nigerian king who needed an American cosigner to receive a wire transfer of US $3.4 million. Thinking it a hoax, Kelley e-mailed back his neighbor's mailing address. Then one day, while Kelley was mowing his lawn, he saw a man wearing a large crown and the hide of an African lion walk up to the neighbor's house.
"You're for real?" Kelley said. "I thought you were a hoax."
"Bet you feel dumb now," the king said. "I'm taking me and my US $3.4 million to TGI Friday's."
He did feel dumb. So dumb he slapped his forehead so hard that he knocked himself out. His vision was messed up while recovering from the head trauma: He saw everything in negative colors, except for the color red. The rest is history."
For those who aren't satisfied with a tall tale, and want to know the truth of the matter, you'll find the answer in The Black Deck Book, where Michael Kelley explains how he inverted a photo of a fanned deck on his phone, and was thereby inspired to make a deck like this.
In his acknowledgements at the start of the book, Brad Christian credits Mike Kelley as follows: "I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge Mike Kelley who accidentally discovered reverse image cards while fooling around in Photoshop and gave me a call with the idea of producing the Black Deck. His persistence is why you are holding a Black Deck in your hand right now."
Using a Black deck
For owners of black decks like The Black Tiger, Ellusionist makes available for free download The Black Deck Book. This book was first released after the success of the Black Tiger deck, and gives 80+ pages with tips for tricks, patter and information about caring for and using black decks like this. I recommend downloading it - it's free after all.
To whet your appetite, here's a quote from the foreword of the book: "We have screened and collected the best of the best for effects and routines to teach you how to take your Black Deck and use it to create miracles. These effects and routines are described in tremendous detail so that you can learn how to perform them flawlessly, and improve your existing magic."
Brad Christian goes on to say this in the introduction: "We are just now beginning to discover what can be done with a Black Deck and how it can be used in magic ... We know that the black cards get attention fast. We know people go, “Wow, cool cards!” We know the top flourish guys absolutely rave about the cards. We know that many card workers treasure the cards dearly. And we know that when used in routines that feature voodoo, spooky stuff, occult, levitation, horror, magick, black magick, the cards bring these themes to life like never before. The cards seem to take on a mysterious force when used in tricks like this and the cards help people to feel your magic that much more by putting a reality behind what you are talking about in your presentation."
Some have raised the issue that using a radically different deck like this could raise suspicions that it's a trick deck. The book gives some ideas and techniques that you can use to help reduce the number of times you get asked, “Is that a trick deck?” While it does have this disadvantage, it is more than outweighed by the advantages - certain effects come alive and have far more impact when performed with a Black Tiger deck.
More Ellusionist decks
Other black decks
The Black Tiger is not the only black deck sold by Ellusionist, although it is probably their most popular one. Other successful black decks in this style include the Tally-Ho Viper Fan Back, Black Arcane, Bicycle Black Ghost, and Bicycle Shadow Masters.
Another strong selling series is the Artifice series, which comes in Red, Blue, Green, Tundra, Emerald, Purple, and Black. I find the Emerald Artifice deck and Blue Artifice deck to be particularly classy, and just love the design of their card backs as well. One of my family members is a budding magician, and has a number of the Artifice decks, and is very pleased with them for use in cardistry and magic.
A wide range of decks has been produced by Ellusionist, and some of the other playing cards currently available include the following:
● Arcane (Black, White, Gold, Red)
● Artifice (Red, Blue, Green, Tundra, Emerald, Purple, Black)
● LTD (Red, Blue, Purple, White)
● Madison Rounders (Brown, Red, Blue, Black)
● Absinthe, Aurelian, Infinity
● Fathom, Ignite
● Killer Bee, Knights
● Keepers, Presser, Republic
● Vintage 1800s
One of my personal favourites is the Vintage 1800 series (available in blue and red), which are decks deliberately designed to look like they are very worn - though the cards themselves are brand new!
There are other decks in the Ellusionist range that are also very functional, while being clean and neat. The Fathom deck features a water theme, and there is also a matching Ignite deck which features a fire theme - these make a great pair. The Keepers decks (available in blue and red) are modelled on the classic Bicycle riderback design but instead feature lighthouses.
Other more classy and elegant decks that Ellusionist has created include the three shown below, Killer Bees, Aurelian, and Infinity - although there are many others that could be mentioned, such as the Knights.
Perhaps I'll have opportunity to review some of these other decks in the future.
A common question is how the card quality of Ellusionist decks compares with regular Bicycle and other decks from US Playing Card Company, which is generally regarded as the top American producer of quality playing cards. The short answer is: Very well, thank you! That's because Ellusionist has their decks printed by USPCC! However there are different options available when having cards printed by the US Playing Card Company:
a) Stock: Bicycle Standard, Bee Casino, or Thin Crush
This refers to the paper used in the printing process. The original printings of the Black Tiger decks were on a special "UV 500" stock, which was sensitive to (ultraviolet) black light, but USPCC discontinued using that card-stock when they relocated to Kentucky in 2009. Since then USPCC only gave two choices of card-stock: Bicycle Standard stock or Bee Casino stock. More recently they added a third choice, Thin-Crush stock, which is more thin, slippery and quicker-wearing but hence usually preferred only by magicians. Ellusionist decks are typically printed with the Bee Casino grade stock, which is often (but not always) slightly thicker, stiffer, and more durable than the Bicycle stock, and can require some breaking in.
b) Texture: Smooth, or Embossed
Technically the "finish" of a playing cards refers to its texture, not the coating. Aviator decks are well known for having a smooth texture, but most other decks (including Bicycle) use an embossed texture, which simply means the paper has dimples to help ensure the ideal amount of friction on the cards for best handling. Sometimes this is referred to as an "air cushion". Cheap quality cards are typically very smooth and don't have an embossed texture, thus handling poorly, whereas Ellusionist playing cards are embossed just the same as standard Bicycle decks.
c) Finish: Magic, or Standard
Technically this is a coating rather than a finish. USPCC's default coating on smaller orders of custom decks is the "Magic Finish", which is slightly more slippery and makes cards slide more easily. It's called different things depending on the brand of cards, e.g. what USPCC calls "Magic Finish", Ellusionist calls "Performance Coating". The slightly less slippery "Standard Finish" coating is only used on orders of 15,000+ and that have a web press appropriate design. On differently branded decks, the Standard Finish is sometimes called "Air-Cushion finish" (Bicycle decks), "Linoid finish" (Tally Ho decks), or "Cambric finish" (Bee decks), which in reality are all identical. To complicate matters, the legal department of USPCC made a peculiar ruling at one stage to designate all decks branded as "Bicycle" with "Air-Cushion finish", regardless of the actual finish. Ellusionist playing cards typically all have the Magic Finish, which is typically preferred by magicians anyway.
d) Cut: Traditional, or Modern
This affects the direction of the bevelled edge of the cards. A traditional cut is when the cards are cut face to back, while a modern cut is when the cards are cut back to face. Decks with a modern cut require a breaking-in period before they can do the kinds of shuffles that decks with a traditional cut can do straight out of the box. USPCC changed how they cut their cards in the 1980s, and since then the modern cut is their normal way of doing things, and they'll only produce decks with a traditional cut when specifically requested. For most people it won't make any difference, unless you are doing faro shuffles or certain gambling sleights.
In short, this means that the playing cards from Ellusionist are of the highest quality possible. In fact most decks produced by USPCC are of similar quality, and the differences between certain decks that some people insist on are largely just a matter of different branding, as well as normal variation to be expected in different batches of paper. Most custom decks feature an embossed texture with a Magic finish, with the only significant difference between them is the paper stock.
What do I think about the Black Tiger deck?
Stunning: As far as looks go, this is a stunner. The jet black cards have a mysterious look to them, and the red and white makes a very strong contrast with the black, thus making the colours "pop", and very visual. Many people have never seen a deck like this before, and these stunning cards often generate an instant "wow" the moment you pull them out of the box.
Functional: Unlike some of the other black decks, the Black Tigers are still very functional. There's no way you're going to confuse the red or black suits, unlike some other black decks (e.g. Black Ghost), where all the pips are white. The distinction between the suits is very vivid, and it was particularly a good move to stick with red for the diamonds/hearts, which not only ensures good functionality and clarity, but also looks great on the black background.
Popular: These decks have been tried and proven, and continue to be popular, despite the flood of new decks constantly appearing on the market. I think one reason for this is the elegance and simplicity of the design: they are just like a standard Bicycle deck, but with reversed images. This makes them immediately familiar, and yet instantly striking.
Black: Yes, this is stating the obvious, but it's worth emphasizing. Ever since they introduced the Black Tiger deck 12 years ago, the Ellusionist line of black decks have remained a favourite. They even sell an All Black Pack which includes the Tally-Ho Viper Fan Back, Bicycle Black Tiger, Black Arcane, Bicycle Black Ghost, and Bicycle Shadow Masters. Of these the Black Tiger is probably the most popular.
Magical: These cards are especially ideal for magic, because while they look familiar, they also evoke a sense of professionalism and mystery, and so help generate an additional sense of dramatic intrigue and mystery to an effect. Gaff cards for the Black Tiger deck are also available separately. The fact that it does already come with one gaff card, a double-backer, already gives it potential for doing magic effects that you can't do with an ordinary deck. As mentioned already, there's also a Queen of Hearts reveal on the tuck box.
Quality: Ellusionist playing cards, including the Black Tiger deck, are generally regarded as long-lasting, and fan and spread well. As explained above, they are produced by US Playing Card Company, use a study card stock, and have a lasting finish that makes them ideal for handling and shuffling. Like all the Ellusionist decks, they have a performance coating (USPCC's "Magic Finish") which makes the cards slide more easily, and helps ensure that they'll shuffle, fan, and spread well over the long haul, and they are printed on the superior and stiffer/thicker Bee Casino Stock. As such, they're of better quality than a standard Bicycle deck, which just has USPCC's "Standard Finish" and the softer Bicycle Standard Stock.
Inspirational: When it was first conceived in 2003, the Black Tiger was revolutionary and outrageous, because it completely broke with the traditional playing card mould. Some have credited it with giving birth to the custom playing card market that is thriving today. That might be overstating matters, but its large sales figures can't be ignored, and its influence is widespread - certainly it did play an important role in inspiring many other designers to come up with innovative designs.
Inexpensive: Many custom decks of playing cards can cost US$15 or even more. In contrast, Ellusionist sells the Black Tiger deck for only US$6.99. That makes it comparatively cheap, considering the strong visual impact it has.
What do others think about the Black Tiger deck?
These cards have been around for many years, so it's not hard to get an idea of what other people think about these cards.
Generally speaking, this deck doesn't have a lot of critics, but here are some things to consider:
● Handling issues? Some have experienced issues with the handling, and report that they don't shuffle as well as they'd like. This is only a very small minority, however, and most users report great satisfaction with the handling qualities of these decks. In terms of quality, they are of the same standard as any other higher end deck from Bicycle, and use the same Bee Casino Stock coated with USPCC's "Magic Finish" (Performance Coating), no different than most other Ellusionist decks.
● Durability? Some have suggested that the cards aren't as durable as they'd like, e.g. that the black edges did wear with shuffling. This is always going to be somewhat of an issue with a black deck, and the Black Deck Book will give some tips about taking care of black cards like these, and how to improve them if the edges do start looking worn.
● Function? Some people found that the card values were harder to distinguish from one another due to the non-traditional colours. This can make them harder to play with for people who are stuck on using traditional cards - mostly this is just a matter of getting used to the unusual colours. Of the black decks out there, I personally think the Black Tiger does the job best, by ensuring a clean look and good clarity.
● Cost? Other critics just felt it's not worth spending the extra money for a deck that utilizes the main Bicycle design; however I'd suggest that the majority opinion is correct that the reversed colours is exactly what makes this deck so popular and successful! As far as custom decks of playing cards go, this is actually a very affordable one, and typically costs lest than half of what most other custom decks cost, so I consider it very good value.
The Black Tiger deck especially gets many positive comments from magicians:
"These cards have a mysterious and ominous design to them, which can help with illusions, for some reason gives of that dark magician vibe. Anywho, great cards, love them." - Yolanda
"It looks great, and mysterious, which aids in making some of your strongest card effects even stronger." - Oscar Gabriel Pineda
"This deck is by far the best one I have ever used. I seem to get better reactions because of its' mysterious look." - B. Coffee
"The deck works perfectly with mentalism tricks and other spook tricks. The look of the deck makes the audience feel the power of your effect." - Colby Magic
"You can use these for regular play or some magic tricks." - Swine F.
"My teenage son uses these for magic tricks and loves them. I have to admit, they're very classy looking." - Spring
"I collect playing cards and this is a great addition to my collection. Also, an amazing deck for card magic." - Christian Lombardi
But it doesn’t just get praise from magicians, but also from poker players, and others who use the Black Tiger deck for traditional card games:
"These cards are just too cool, they are show stoppers - when people see them they want to play card games." - C. Binder
"The BEST cards I have ever used! The red pips on black card stock look absolutely stunning." - Bubloo
"Unbelievable, smooth, magical, and perfect are just some of the words that can be used to describe the Black Tiger Deck. This deck made by Ellusionist is one of the finest I have ever seen or touched." - B. Coffee
"This is one of the best deck of Bicycle cards I ever bought. Everyone loved the deck when I showed them." - Macen Delesio
"By far my favorite deck of cards! The look of these cards always impresses!" - B. Rich
"Absolutely stunning cards." - Alexis Rugar
"I ended up buying 40 decks from Ellusionist after purchasing this deck on Amazon. I love this deck - it looks amazing, feels amazing, and creates a great response from your audience." - SecretReviewer
"We have game nights where my and my husband play different card games. These have been a great addition to these game nights. The cards are so unique and fun looking." - MommyM
"I really enjoyed playing with these, a good different from my usual Bicycle deck. Highly Recommended if you are a card lover." - Luci Que Nguyen
"Bicycle quality coupled with pleasing aesthetics. What more could you want from a card deck?" - Shane O'Sullivan
"These cards look absolutely incredible. An Absolute Killer. Highly, highly recommended." - Brian
"Bought these for my brother, since he collects interesting decks of playing cards. He loved them! Definitely a fun and unique deck." - Roxie Wilde
"Totally cool cards. The white, black and red palette makes them both simple and striking to look at. They're also fun for playing games, being exotic looking but still easily recognizable." - LostInTheWoods
"Was looking for a set of playing cards for an individual who is in the gaming industry as a gift. This deck fit the look and quality I was looking for." - Stuart Scantlebury
"I believe these are made for magic tricks, but they are still great for playing too." - C-Biscuit
"Not only do they look cool but they handle real easy too!" - Anthony Simon
"I absolutely love these cards. The design is absolutely fantastic." - Swine F.
"They are high quality and are an attention getter. Prompts a lot of conversation. Everyone loves these cards." - John F. Keith
"Whenever I take this baby out, my friends go WHOA." - Yohan Hong
"Got these for a collector of cards. He had an unopened set and was blown away by the detail of these when he opened them." - Derek Seth McArdle
Ellusionist has a terrific range of magic teaching materials, and while that may be of some interest to gamers, the real appeal for most readers here will be their selection of playing cards. They have some elegant and classy decks that are ideal for playing poker or other traditional card games. The Black Tiger is one of their signature decks, and is a proven and popular best-seller. If you're looking for something that will make a bold statement, and yet is very functional, this is a go-to deck that will make people sit up and notice. It handles well and is enjoyable to play games with.
And if the Black Tiger deck isn't for you, it's worth checking out some of the other decks in their catalogue. I've taken advantage of their flat rate shipping on several occasions, and many of their decks of playing cards are quite affordable in comparison to other high end custom decks, while they don't sacrifice on quality.
Want to learn more?
Ellusionist Magic: http://www.ellusionist.com/tricks
Ellusionist Playing Cards: http://www.ellusionist.com/playing-cards
Black Tiger deck: http://www.ellusionist.com/bicycle-black-tiger-decks.html
For more of my reviews on custom playing cards, subscribe to this list: Pictorial Reviews of Playing Cards by EndersGame
The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596
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- Last edited Wed May 31, 2017 4:18 am (Total Number of Edits: 5)
- Posted Wed Apr 26, 2017 10:40 am