THE TENDRIL TRILOGY

I've had people ask me more than once whether custom playing cards can be expensive. The answer is: not necessarily. Most decks over at Rare Playing Cards cost around $10-15, and you can get some amazing playing cards at that price (examples here). But they certainly can be expensive too.

Take for example the original Tendril deck, created by graphic designer Paul Carpenter (pictured below with some of his cards), and the deck which launched his brand Encarded. At the time of writing this article, there's just a handful available on eBay, and they're all listed for at least $100 each. Yes, seriously! The Tendril deck was created in 2012 with the help of crowd-funding, with just 5,000 copies made, never to be reprinted. At the time, it broke the Kickstarter record for the highest funding for a playing card project. As part of this, backers could pledge to get these decks for under $10 each. But since then, prices for this deck have gone through the roof.



So why so was the Tendril deck so successful? Certainly it did have some unique features in playing card design, that are very attractive, and even more so at the time it was released for funding:
- Black deck: Black decks always get attention because of their unusual colour, especially if combined well with other elements.
- Neon colours: What especially made this deck work amazingly well, were the glowing fluorescent style colours, that look both hypnotic and yet calming.
- Organic symmetry: While many custom decks feature obvious symmetry on the card backs, Tendril has a back design that looks completely random, and yet is actually mirrored/symmetrical.
- Face patterns: It's common to have patterns on the back of a deck, but why not also have patterns on the front of the cards? Tendril has a subtle variation of the back design on the actual card faces.
- Shadow borders: While beautiful, black decks tend to wear quickly on the edges. Tendril was a black deck where the edges faded to light gray, to minimize the negative effect of wear. These borders were also welcome for magicians, who rely on face-down cards remaining hidden in the pack.
- Other elements: Other notable features about the Tendril deck included the fact that the artwork for the court cards was all custom and designed from scratch, as was the design of the pips. The deck was also printed in USPCC's highest quality (Bee Casino stock, Magic finish), and came with two gaff cards, so it was a quality product all-round.
- Good timing: The Tendril deck came out just as Kickstarter was really starting to take off. So it was before the glut of custom designs that now are found in an abundance on crowd-funding platforms. Pioneers like Paul Carpenter were able to reap the rewards by publishing a good design, and capitalize on a market that was looking for something new and exciting, and where the marketplace wasn't yet flooded with competition.



Obviously all these elements came together perfectly, creating a deck with big appeal for card flourishers, magicians, and collectors. It was beautiful and practical, all at once. To borrow the paradoxical language of the ad copy: "Dark, yet colorful. Symmetrical, yet not. Sinister, yet inviting." And it was also very cheap. Kickstarter supporters could pick up the deck for very cheap at the time. And now just five years later it's become of those rare hard-to-find decks, with a price-tag of well over $100!

But not every deck has to be expensive. After that initial record-breaking success, Encarded has gone on to produce nearly 30,000 decks of custom playing cards. The original Tendril deck has inspired what has now become a Tendril trilogy, with the addition of two other decks in the series: Tendril Nightfall, and Tendril Ascendant. And now here's the best bit - right now you can pick up each of these two decks for around $12 from the designer. That's right, for just a bit more than ten bucks a deck, you can pick up a completely custom and beautiful deck like the original Tendril one, without breaking the bank.





In this review, I want to share with you something about the Tendril trilogy, and briefly tell you a bit more about Encarded and what they've produced, with a special focus on reviewing the three Tendril decks of playing cards.


TENDRIL: THE ORIGINAL

Let's start with the original Tendril deck that started this all. It's now highly sought after, and very hard to get without spending quite a bit of money, because it has proven to be a real collector's item. Certainly Paul Carpenter is indebted to this design for helping him establish a real following!

Tendril

Here's a look at both sides of the tuck-box.



The card back design was inspired by Costa Rican rain forests. As Paul explains:

"In our various travels, one place has stuck in our minds as being a wonderful mix of opposites. The rain forests of Costa Rica present you with such varied environments, and Tendril tries to capture some of the beauty and mystery that I’ve found there. In the span of 24 hours, you can see amazing, eye-popping colors: the bluest of skies, the deepest of green leafs, the most shocking pink flowers. As day tapers off into night, the blackness can become absolute and what was a gorgeous and inviting atmosphere a few short hours earlier now becomes a quiet place of hushed danger. I wanted Tendril to have that mix of visual elements. Black, yet not. Dark, yet colorful. Inviting, yet sinister."



The card back is strangely hypnotic and yet enchanting, and feels like it is inviting you into a mysterious new world.

Meanwhile the tendril patterns emerge again on the face of the Ace of Spades.



I just love the combination of beautiful colours here!



It reminds me somewhat of the scratched art projects I did in school, with one colour melting into another - just stunning!



The two main colours of the deck are orange-red and a lime-yellow-green.



The number cards feature the same tendril artwork as a soft background, and custom pips.



Finally, here are the two stunning jokers, which look amazing when twirled and spun.



Altogether it's an eerie, hypnotic, and yet enchanting feel, with a haunting and nocturnal beauty!



Here's part of an uncut sheet, which gives somewhat of an overview of the entire deck.



Not everyone will appreciate it, but clearly it captured the attention and delight of collectors and cardists when it first came out, being both visually shocking and charming, and yet quite suitable for magic and cardistry, and for general use.


TENDRIL: THE SEQUELS

Given that the haunting beauty of this most unusual deck is going to be beyond the reach of most of us, what is a poor man to do? Well thankfully this unique set of playing cards has spawned two sequels, which together with it make up a trilogy.



Tendril Nightfall and Tendril Ascendant were produced together, and these are the ones that are still readily available at a very reasonable price from Paul's site.



Tendril Nightfall

Here's how Paul himself describes the Tendril Nightfall deck: "Tendril: Nightfall playing cards are a mirror of the original from 2012. The original Tendril deck was designed as if you were in the tropical rainforest, peering up at the sun through the natural habitat. Nightfall is that same view, but time-shifted to the evening, when the moon is glowing and the light is cool and dark."

Even the box of the Nightfall version harks back to the design of the original Tendril deck, except that it has striking metallic blue foil accents. The matching styles of the boxes reflects a unity in design.

The tuck box also shows off the design of the card backs.



Unlike the original Tendril deck, this deck does have fully black bordered cards, so it's not immune to the issues that the original Tendril deck sought to avoid by having shadow borders, but it's also what helps differentiate this particular deck from it. Some have described it as a "colour negative" of the original, and that's a fair description. The design is unchanged, but the colour scheme has in some respects been reversed.



I particularly love the glowing moon of the card-backs, which evoke a sense of peering up at a night sky.

The tendrils also make an appearance on the Aces, but with less of a hypnotic colour scheme, and evoking a feeling of cool black light.



The colours of the face cards are quite similar to those of the original Tendril deck, but with a slightly adjusted palette to favour a slight emphasis towards green and orange. As mentioned already, the shadowed borders have been eliminated, but the tendril background artwork does features again. And this time the glow of the moonlight bursts through the card and appears on the card faces as well!



The number cards are similar styled, of course, and the pip design is unchanged from the original Tendril deck.



Finally, here's a look at the Joker from this version.



Much like the original, this is a beautiful and original looking deck, and a worthy companion and follow-up!



Tendril Ascendant

You can immediately tell by looking at the deck box that this final member of the Tendril trilogy has a different feel. In the Tendril Ascendant deck, the tendrils are still present, and the tuck box still has a dark and broody look, but there are some vibrant greens that make an appearance.



Unlike the Tendril Nightfall deck, it departs more from the original Tendril design, by incorporating various refinements, while still retaining the organic symmetrical feel of the original. The line work is more influenced by spheres. As Paul describes it:

"Its design incorporates all the refinements that we have learned over the years and mixes those with the organic symmetry first seen in Tendril. The colors are bold, the borders are intense, the faces are dark and the level of detail has been increased."

The card-back in particular has undergone some changes.



While a different colour scheme has been used, particularly the flourescent styled borders, what remains a constant is what most people loved about the original Tendril deck: the fluid colours on the face cards, set against a black background.



Don't those court cards look stunning? Once again, the tendrils make an appearance on the card faces as well, as can be seen with these number cards, which have bolder and larger pips.



The two main colours of this deck are a flourescent or metallic style yellow/green, and bright blue.

These colours are also prominent in the Jokers, which feature interesting spiral/spherical shapes, and are very different from the machine-like cog of the other two versions of the Tendril deck.



Like the other decks in the series, it looks remarkable when spread in a fan.




NON-TENDRIL DECKS

Paul is a designer with many talents, and he's put these talents to good use by making other beautiful designs under the Encarded label.

Encarded Standard

I'll start with the cheapest deck that Paul sells, which is something he calls Encarded Standard. As I'm writing this, the current price point for this deck is around $8.



It's deliberately designed to be a very affordable and usable deck. The court cards are styled on classic faces, but with a completely reworked and custom look. But beyond this, the degree of customization in the entire deck is minimal, to ensure that the overall look is easily recognizable and functional.



The first edition of Encarded Standarded was printed in 2014 with a classic blue tuck box and card backs. The box has a very neat and clean look, and yet an elegant touch with the addition of silver foil and subtle embossed features, while the back of the box has a patterned design not unlike the card-backs, but with inverted colours.



These cards were printed by the Expert Playing Card Company in their Master finish, which is the equivalent of the Diamond finish from Legends Playing Card Company (see my detailed review of their finishes here). These cards are thinner and snappier than a typical USPCC produced deck, but are also more durable, have much cleaner edges, and shuffle, fan, and handle beautifully.

Celestial

The Celestial deck is a good example of one of the limited releases from Encarded. Only 1000 individually numbered decks were produced, and like many of Paul Carpenter's other limited releases, these tend to be snapped up quickly by collectors and fans of his style.

The tuck box is absolutely exquisite, with embossing, a combination of pearlescent white and metallic red foils, and an individually numbered seal that collectors will appreciate.



The name already hints at the inspiration of the design, which captures elements of ancient astronomers, their instruments and charts, probing a limitless expanse.

The court cards showcase a deliberate attempt to work with a classic and familiar look, but with a minimalist use of colours that emphasizes the polished design of the characters themselves, while the delicate borders and the fine detail below the indices creates a sense of refinement and style.



The red card backs have a simple and practical design that captures the thematic elements of astronomy instruments from ancient times.



These cards were also produced by Expert Playing Company, but in their Classic finish, which will feel softer and more familiar than the Master finish, and is a popular choice for many decks these days.

More?

Many other examples could be given of the terrific decks that Paul has produced in limited numbers under the Encarded label, including Aurum, Deco, Zenith, Chancellor, more. I'll not cover these here, since the focus of this review is the Tendril Trilogy, which was more widely produced and more readily available. But if you do like the look of what you see here, definitely consider following Encarded, so that you can be among the hungry few who quickly gobble up the quality limited editions of Paul's beautiful designs.




CONCLUSIONS

Glowing: The whole feel of the Tendril trilogy decks is a sense of luminescence. They feature a very unusual set of colours, that feel simultaneously jarring and yet relaxing at the same time. It's a paradoxical combination of being boldly striking and yet pleasantly calming. The neon colours gives the sense that the pips on the cards are glowing, and looks fantastic!

Eye-catching: Even though I've seen a lot of custom decks of playing cards, there was something immediately eye-catching about the Tendril design. It features an unusual design, particularly on the card backs, but this is enhanced by the striking choice of colours used for the card backs and faces, especially the dominant use of black as a background, against which vivid colours stand out brightly, with the colours themselves flowing into one another rather than being static. The effect is hard to describe, especially if one sees it first-hand - it is oddly hypnotic and at the same time ethereal. While it won't be to everyone's taste, there's no disputing the fact that this is a very eye-catching design!

Creative: Paul Carpenter is a man of creativity, who likes experimenting and trying new things. He describes his own passion for playing card design as follows: "I like to pursue new ideas, trying things that other designers might not have thought of. Holding a deck of custom cards in your hands is a wonderfully tactile experience, and I want to bring a little sense of wonder to each deck I make." This creativity is certainly evident in the Tendril trilogy that fuelled the beginning of Encarded. Fortunately there's no reason to think that he's lost this creativity, and whenever he releases a new design it immediately attracts a lot of interest.

Trilogy: I especially like the fact that the two sequels not only build on the success of the original Tendril deck, but also its design. There is a unity of style that binds them together, especially the close relationship that Tendril Nightfall has with the first deck. Of the two sequels, I probably like the Nightfall deck the best, for this reason, but they are both excellent, and the flourescent yellow-green of the Tendril Ascendant has a lively spring-time feel that many will appreciate.

Quality: There's a lot of debate about handling of different decks in playing card circles. But the truth of the matter is that if a deck is produced by United States Playing Card Company, there's not going to be many differences in quality. The only real choices designers have are whether a deck is smooth or embossed, and the vast majority select the embossed option, since it is the one that produces an air-cushion style finish that is optimal for good handling. Aside from that the only other significant choice to be made is whether to use Standard/Bicycle stock, or to use the slightly thicker and higher quality Bee Casino stock. The Tendril decks use the latter, and so they are very well produced, effectively at the highest USPCC standards possible. For some of his other decks, Paul has used Expert Playing Card Company as the printer. I personally havea lot of experience with EPCC decks, and can confidently affirm that their quality is equal to or higher than USPCC decks. In other words, all Encarded decks are going to be quality playing cards.

Inexpensive: While the limited edition decks might be out of the reach of some people's budgets, the prices for the Tendril sequels are very reasonable, especially compared with the prices of other custom playing cards in the market right now. And certainly they are a bargain when compared with the large figures that the original Tendril deck is commanding on the secondary market right now!

Record-breaking: When the original Tendril deck was released on Kickstarter in early 2012, it easily achieved its goal of $20,000, and went on to reach a total funding level of $41,648, with over 1000 backers. At the time, this was easily a record for the highest amount of funding ever for a set of playing cards, crushing the previous best result. Some consider this deck to have played a role in beginning the playing card revolution on Kickstarter that followed in the years afterwards. After this hit, the word was out that Kickstarter was a viable platform for quality projects, and so collectors and magicians began flocking to this crowd-funding platform in search of other hidden gems. It's a result of successes like the Tendril story, that talented independent designers were finding themselves able to tap into a market that previously was monopolized by big publishers such as Ellusionist, Theory11 and Blue Crown.

Enterprising: The man behind Encarded is Paul Carpenter, who has a background in graphic design. His interests include collecting playing cards, cardistry, and simple sleight of hand, as well as outdoor activities around his home in Florida. He founded his company Encarded already in 2011, but it was on the strength of his Tendril success that he was able to go on to future successes. His Kickstarter for the original Tendril effectively and successfully launched Encarded as a viable enterprise, and since then he's created numerous Encarded projects, many of which are produced in limited numbers, and sought after by collectors.

Other decks: Clearly a talented individual, Paul has also produced numerous other designs under the Encarded label, including Aurum, Deco, Zenith, Chancellor, Celestial and more. Many of these classy playing cards are in high demand, so if his style appeals to you, you'll want to keep an eye for his future projects.

Where can you get them? The best place to look is at Encarded's website.





Recommendation

Are the Tendril decks of playing cards for you? The original Tendril deck is probably out of reach for most of us, but fortunately you don't have to sell one of your kidneys before having enough money to buy one of the two sequels that completed the trilogy of Tendril decks. Paul Carpenter's style is unique, and the unusual colour choices and eye-catching design make for very striking and memorable decks, that instantly leave a positive impression on most people who see them.

I am happy to have come across Encarded, and glad to recommend Paul's work to anyone who enjoys quality playing cards!



Want to learn more? Encarded: http://www.encarded.com

Direct links for the decks featured in this review:
Tendril Nightfall: https://encarded.com/collections/playing-cards/products/tend...
Tendril Ascendant: https://encarded.com/collections/playing-cards/products/tend...
Encarded Standard: https://encarded.com/products/encarded-standard-first-editio...
Celestial Red: https://encarded.com/products/celestial-red-edition




BoardGameGeek reviewer

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