The Lee McKenzie Story

Chapter 1: Designs for Ellusionist

Many people in the world of playing cards might not recognize the name of British designer Lee McKenzie. But you really should. The reason his name is probably not as well-known as it should be, is simply because the decks he designed were for one of the biggest players in the world of custom playing cards: Ellusionist. As a result, the decks Lee has designed tend to be associated with Ellusionist rather than with his own name.

But in fact, Lee designed decks for Ellusionist for around five years, from 2008 to 2013. Try these names for size - and especially Ellusionist fans are likely to recognize more than just one: Arcane Playing Cards (white and black). The Artifice Playing Cards series (v1 and v2). Infinity Playing Cards. Fathom Playing Cards. Quite a number of these decks are in my home, and they have been very popular both for playing card games with, or for performing card magic. All of these were designs that Lee McKenzie did as sole designer (producer Jason Brumbalow provided conceptual/art direction). But credit where credit is due, and I find it somewhat of a pity that Lee's designs haven't given him the recognition he deserves. These designs were among the first non-Bicycle branded custom decks that entered into the mainstream, at a time when the playing card industry was really starting to take off and explode, and Lee's creativity lies behind the success that these Ellusionist decks had.

Lee's own journey into magic began much earlier at age 11, with a love for playing cards and for the psychology of deception, which led to well-honed skills in sleight-of-hand. It was this love that he was able to combine with his skills in art and design, and his interest in the visual story-telling worlds created by movies, music, and photography. Equipped with this passion and these skills, Lee began his freelance design career working for the magic industry titan Ellusionist, and while decks like Arcane, Artifice, Infinity, and Fathom are usually associated with Ellusionist, it is really Lee who gave birth to these popular playing cards.



Chapter 2: Empire & Empire Bloodlines

In 2013, however, Lee decided to emerge from underneath the big banner of Ellusionist. The tragic loss of his grandfather as a result of cancer proved to be a time for a lot of self-reflection for Lee, and this played a key role in the next moves he would make in the journey of his own life. He decided that it was time to stop freelancing, and forge his own path, by sharing his passion with the world, and making a long-time dream become a reality. So he launched a deck of his very own: Empire Playing Cards - dedicated to his grandfather. The project was easily funded in mid-2013, with a strong support that tripled the initial funding goal. This limited edition deck proved to be very popular, and today it fetches prices of around $100 on the secondary market!

After this success, in the following year 2014, Lee decided that it was time to inject some new blood into the Empire saga. And so came another very successful project, the Empire Bloodlines series, which took the dramatic story and detailed design of the original Empire deck, and brought it to a new level with a deck in the same mould, but inspired by ornate and elegant stone engravings.

Lee invests an enormous amount of himself when creating a deck of playing cards, and he's certainly poured a lot into these Empire decks as well!



Chapter 3: Kings & Crooks

The next chapter in Lee's fascinating story begins in 2017, with the launch of a brand new website with a whole new look: Kings & Crooks. The name captures something of Lee's own leap of faith in 2013, as a risk-taker, artist, and explorer, taking a bold step into a new world as a completely independent designer.

The Kings and Crooks website is an equally ambitious project, featuring cutting edge graphic design and stunning visuals, in which Lee has begun to market his lifestyle brand. It includes branded items like the following:
- Playing cards: decks of Empire playing cards ($15-25 each)
- Apparel: t-shirts
- Accessories: poker card guards (aka poker hand protectors), also suitable as dealer buttons
- Card art: uncut sheets, and impossible bottles



The theme behind much of Lee's mission is about carving your own mark on the world, telling your own stories, and forging your own path. A motto you'll find repeated on his web-site is: "Play by your own rules." The Kings & Crooks brand is about having the courage to take risks, refusing to follow the herd, and creating your own pathway in life. Lee puts it this way: "Life is ours for the making. Fuelled by relentless passion and a rebel heart, we craft bold and beautiful, high-quality playing cards for magicians, mechanics, cardists and connoisseurs. Armed with a life-long obsession for magic and playing cards with decades devoted to design, we see more than just cards. We see a canvas. We tell our own stories through our art and create what we wish existed to share it with those who love it like us. Like you." This philosophy is captured with other one-liners that dot his brand and website, such as "We say never blend in. Never get in line. Never play it safe." And this: "Fight to do what makes you feel alive, and your every breath is an act of rebellion." This is a brand that artists, explorers, rebels, and risk-takers will readily identify with. "The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all."

Kings & Crooks will especially be a welcome home to those who feel the magnetic pull of Lee's invitation: "To the ones who answer when rebellion calls. The wild cards who won't be tamed and curious adventurers seeking a road less travelled. You bet on yourself and create your own luck. You play by your own rules and live to tell your own stories. We live to do the incredible with our art, so you can do the impossible with yours. For those who dare to rattle the cage. Whether you work in the light or play in the shade, it’s time to make your mark. Welcome to Kings & Crooks."

This is the sentiment that also runs deep in the veins of the fine playing cards that Lee McKenzie has produced with his Empire series, and it's these decks that I'll be taking a close look at in this review. If you're a connoisseur or an explorer at heart, you're likely to see the appeal of the card-inspired style of the Kings & Crooks apparel and its luxury card-ware and accessories, and especially its lovely playing cards. Yes, they are just cards, but in Lee's mind, they embody much more. They symbolize the creative forces in life, and so serve as an inspiration for people to live freely and to excel with confidence. Lee wants you to embrace what matters to you, to do the things you enjoy, to give it your best, and to really shine while you're doing it. So let's check out his Empire series of playing cards, and see if it can inspire us on our life's journey!



Empire Playing Cards

Limited Edition

Initially released and successfully funded via Kickstarter in 2013, the Empire deck of playing cards was the first deck that Lee McKenzie produced independently, and marks the beginning of his Empire series. The Empire Bloodlines decks that were produced the following year were based on this design and maintain similar features, but this incredible debut deck already showcased the unique style of extravagance that would become the mark of the Empire playing card series.



The cards are housed in a nice tuck box, complete with gold foiling, that symbolizes something of the value of the deck itself. The front features a coat of arms style design, with a lion and unicorn holding flags, as well as the name of the deck (Empire) at the top, completed with intricate details.

The back of the tuck box features the back design of the cards, while a red seal encloses the box.



The interior of the box is in scarlet, and on the top flap of the tuck box are the words (hidden when closed): "Be bold. Build your empire. Carve your dreams on the face of the earth." This of course, is very closely linked to the life-motto that captures Lee's brand.



The back design of the cards is an intricate design of wings, swirls and two cards being stabbed towards the centre of the card.



All of this is in a black, grey and white palette, which only serves to enhance a stand out feature: a slice of vibrant red on the edge of the card, which bursts out of the deck in fans and spreads as a solid stripe, creating elegant and amazing displays.



The court cards have the traditional head and elements of the standard design, so are very recognisable and usable for playing card games or performing magic with cards. However, they are much nicer than a standard deck, as they feature amazing and intricate designs surrounding the images of the Kings, Queens and Jacks. They all have a unique stylistic element in that their suit pip is in the centre of the card.

The indices on these court cards is also on a beautiful banner that showcases how upper class these court cards are. Exquisite and stunning all round!



The faces of the cards in the Empires deck feature elegant and intricately designed pips, with a unique and custom layout. Each of the face cards also has a small border on the side, corresponding to the colour of the suit, and similar to the stylized design of the back, which allows for amazing spreads and fans of the face cards too.



The Ace embodies the spirit of what Lee's cards are about, with the additional words: "Built for Battle, born for Victory", which also appears on the intricate design on the tuck box. In fact all the Aces have elegant and ornate artwork.



The Joker is a shield with a sword, and a banner below has the Latin phrase "Luceo Non Uro" which means "I Shine Not Burn."

One of the Jokers contains a wonderful reveal for magicians: a card stabbed through the sword, which a skilled magician can use to generate some great effects, and produce some cool reactions when combining these cards with sleight of hand moves like a colour change.



It's not hard to see why this beautiful deck was so well received, and why it is now a prized collectors' piece that typically fetches prices of $100 and up on the secondary market.



Empire Bloodlines Playing Cards

The Empire Bloodlines decks were produced in 2014, and are effectively the sequel to the original Empire deck. The Bloodlines were produced in three different versions: a matching Royal Blue and Emerald Green, and a Limited Edition in Black and Gold.

It's about injecting new blood into the original Empire deck, and Lee explains the thinking behind this sequel as follows: "I've spent the best part of the last year designing a brand new edition that embodies the very same epic values, obsessive detail and powerfully dramatic story telling design of its predecessor. However, the Bloodlines take the bold graphic style that the Empire series has become known for, and pushes it even further. They each stand strong with a unique style of their very own. Inspired by the beautiful, ornate and elegant stone engravings that emerged during the rule of one oft the most powerful Empires in history. These were times when legendary wars for world domination took place, courage was celebrated and honour was earned on the battlefield."

The thematic idea behind this series continues the philosophical motif that underlies all of Lee's work: "Choose. No one is born great. You create who you choose to be. Crafted with a daring spirit and a powerful design, the Bloodlines are built for those who know that greatness is to be achieved, not waited for. By choice, not chance."



Standard Editions

Royal Blue

The tuck case of the Empire Bloodlines Royal Blue deck is very beautifully designed, with the front of the tuck having a similar style as might be found on a coat of arms in a medieval setting.



The back of the tuck box features the design of the card backs. On both the side borders is a marginal glimpse of a blue banner - this looks especially great when more than one decks are placed next to each other.

Embossing on the box allows the box to have a great texture and royal feel, and the use of silver foil on the front only enhances this look of luxury.



A red seal offsets the blue on the box, and the two tuck flaps are adorned with a unicorn and lion in embossed silver foil, for a beautiful finishing touch.

To complete a look of complete class, the box has interior printing in blue, featuring a tiled arrangement of pips that are spaced out evenly against the background of an intricate and attractive pattern.



The back of the cards primarily has a hand drawn style of detailed black and white line work, with touches of blue to enhance the overall impression. It has a decidedly medieval look, with swords poking out, and the top and bottom of the cards has artwork that resembles a coat of arms, with a lion and unicorn leaning against a pillar. A small circle in the centre creates a pleasant focal point, and also ensures a static circular element when performing card flourishes with spins and twirls.



While the cards do have a border, which allows them to stand out from one another, they also have a small banner fragment in royal blue on the two opposite margins all the way to the edge, which looks amazing in fans and spreads, as it just pops out of the cards.



The faces of these cards are very elegant and impressive as well.

The court cards maintain the traditional feel, and so are very easily recognizable for use in card magic or card games. They all feature a large icon of the suit in the center of the card, which looks very nice, and is a unique stylish touch that helps set this deck apart from many others. Minimal colours are used for the courts, being just black and white, although the traditionally red suits of Hearts and Diamonds do feature the addition of some blue.



The indices are very interesting, being just the outline of the suit rather than filled in, but still in the colour of the suit. This creates a minimalistic look that is very pleasing and results in a unique visual aesthetic.



There is a intricate watermark-style background on each of the cards - close attention to the artwork of this watermark reveals that is actually one way (something that magicians might find handy).

Also, there is a watermark banner on the edges of the card faces, and like the design of the card-backs, this feature further enhances spreads and fans.



The pips are all slightly larger than standard, and have a bold and ornate look, which fits the style very well. They are all customized, but are still easily recognizable for what they are. The Hearts and Diamonds are blue instead of the standard red, which creates a very nice look and fits in with the overall colour theme employed by the deck.

The Ace of Spades features an oversized and stylized Ace pip with a lion and unicorn leaning up against a pole, with the word "Empire" above and "Kings & Crooks" below, all encased in an enclosed design of exquisite and ornate detail. Below the Ace are the words "Bloodlines Edition."



The Jokers feature a large dog-like creature with its mouth open, and a banner above with the word "Joker". The second Joker contains a very handy reveal for magicians, as it has in its mouth the Seven of Diamonds, with the banner above saying "7OFDS"; this can be used for great effects in magic, while the Jokers are still entirely usable in ordinary card games.



There are also two additional cards in the deck: an ad card for Kings and Crooks, and a double backer, also usable for magic effects.

The cards have been printed by the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), on a FSC-certified, premium quality casino grade stock. They handle great, with a reasonably soft stock and a smooth slippery coating that allows cards to slide easily and evenly over one another. The cards have also been traditionally cut, which is preferred by some card handlers, and allows for face-down weave shuffles to be accomplished.



Emerald Green

The Empire Bloodlines Emerald Green deck is essentially the same as the Royal Blue Bloodlines deck, with the colour green replacing the blue.



Also, in this case the seal on the tuck box is blue instead of scarlet. But once again we have interior printing and wonderful foil accents, the same as with the Royal Blue deck.



These two decks are basically the same design, just with different colour tones, and both creating an elegant and sophisticated look, in the colour of your choice.



The ribbon edge on the sides of the cards now creates a pleasant green strip in spreads and fans.



Here's a couple of court cards, which illustrates Lee's unique take on the traditional style.



Notice how green is now used for the traditionally red suits instead of blue.



These number cards do a good job of illustrating the elaborate and ornate custom pips.



Both the colours and the styles of the card faces and card backs complement each other beautifully.



Once again the signature Ace of Spades is a showcase piece of elaborate artwork.



The Joker for this deck also has a reveal, but for this deck it is for the Two of Clubs, implemented in the same style as the reveal in the Royal Blue deck.



Together with the blue deck, this green deck successfully continues the Empire saga, which can be described as follows: "Breath-taking playing cards with a brave mission. The Empire Bloodlines dare you to look within, step out of line, and build your own Empire. It’s in your blood."



Limited Edition

The Empire Bloodlines Limited Edition deck is much the same as the blue and green members of this series, but is a special limited edition, and unlike the other decks is never again to be reprinted.

It has the same basic design as the blue and green Empire Bloodlines decks, but is black, white and gold instead. Lee McKenzie describes it as "Black. Gold. Limited. The Mazerati of your playing card collection."



Nothing matches a distinguished taste for beauty and grandeur quite like these - they are unexpected, powerful, and refined, and the Limited Edition tuck box is easily the pinnacle of refinement in the Empire series.

It features amazing gold foil accents to the lettering and design, which are very eye-catching against the jet black background, and really looks terrific.



The tuck box seal has a corrugated edge, is in a gold colour that fits well with the rest of the box, and features an individual number out of 2000, which is the number of decks printed.



The back design of the cards is dominated by an inky black background in a full bleed style, which creates a superb dark look, while the design on this black canvas is in white and gold, and looks very elegant and impressive. The gold on the back also really fits in with the overall colour scheme, and enhances the look of the image a great deal.



The white banners on the edges of the cards stand out boldly against the black, and these center edge bands look especially superb in fans and ribbon spreads.



The faces of the cards are basically the same as the previous editions, but feature metallic gold for the traditionally red suits of Hearts and Diamonds, for an even more classy look.



This metallic gold matches the impressive gold accents that also characterize the court cards, and additionally complements the colours of the card backs.



Because the metallic gold contrasts strongly with the black, there's no difficulty in distinguishing between the suits.



As with all these decks, the Aces have a real sense of class and style, particularly of course the Ace of Spades.



The Jokers are identical, with the exception of a Three of Spades reveal on one of them, implemented in the same style as the other decks.

This Limited Edition deck, unlike the previous two, has not been printed by USPCC but rather has been printed by Legends Playing Card Company in Taiwan. This means that it handles slightly differently - in my view, even better. The cards are made from Legends' Classic finish, which is the most like the USPCC’s Bicycle quality. While it feels quite normal, the edges are cut much smoother, and it feels much nicer than a typical USPCC decks. Also, these have been traditionally cut for face-down weave shuffles.

It's hard to beat Lee's own description of this stylish deck, which sums all this up nicely: "Uncommon. Drenched in silk black and teased with gold. Edges smooth as glass. The Limited Edition Empire Bloodlines are for those with love for the finer things. The uncommon man with uncommon tastes. He seeks to taste the rare and beautiful that lie behind doors off limits to most." With full interior printing, gold accents, and velvet black good looks, it's difficult to imagine how the Empire Bloodlines series could look any better.



Conclusions

Personal story: Lee McKenzie's personal story is a very touching one. I've recounted it in summary in the opening paragraphs of this feature article, and I've pieced it together as a result of personal correspondence I've had with Lee, information I researched from other sources, and from what I learned by reading the story as you can find it here on the Kings & Crooks website. The personal loss of his grandfather was evidently a key turning point in his life, and those of us who have experienced grief or loss, will understand something of the place Lee was in at that moment of his life. But loss always places us at a crossroads, and Lee has chosen to respond to this by embarking on a journey forwards, meeting the challenges ahead, and forging a new path, one that led first to the Empires decks, and now to the Kings & Crooks brand. Without the pathway through pain, perhaps he would never have created these treasures, and we are only the richer for it.

Personal success: Before even beginning with the Empire series, Lee had already achieved success in the impressive decks of playing cards he created for Ellusionist. While his new Kings & Crooks brand is effectively a one-man operation, he does so with the benefit of personal experience and success in the playing card industry. As mentioned already, it's somewhat unfortunate that the success of Lee's first designs are usually associated with Ellusionist, and that the popular Arcane and Artifice series, and successful decks like Infinity and Fathom, have fuelled the Ellusionist train more than his own reputation as a designer. But it does mean that when you look at the Empire decks, you need to realize that these are the creations of an established and popular designer, even if they are the very first decks produced independently under his own label.

Personal investment: For Lee, designing a deck of cards is intensely personal, mainly because of how much he gives himself to the process, and invests in terms of the physical and mental resources required to accomplish it. This was one fact that led him to part ways with Ellusionist, and begin making his own name. In his words: "It struck me that time was too short to be giving, what felt like, tiny pieces of my soul with every deck I designed for Ellusionist. Designing cards means a lot to me personally, and I put so much into it." Given what he put into the creative process, I'm glad for Lee that at last he can be producing playing cards with his own name and own brand on them. It's something incredibly meaningful to him, and for me as a consumer, it makes the end result all the more meaningful to me as well.

Personal expertise: The custom-playing card market place is becoming more and more crowded all the time. But before complaining about that, let's remember that only five years ago we lived in a very different time, where the custom playing card market was only just beginning to get wheels. And the only people with the money and resources to use those wheels to produce quality playing cards were big name brands like United States Playing Cards, and those with connections in the magic world like Ellusionist and Theory11. It's exciting to live in an era where crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and where Asian printers like Legends Playing Cards now give individual designers the opportunity to compete with the big names. However, this has resulted in a flood of designs entering the market place, and the gap between something bad and something great is often a big one. For magicians or graphic designers who just enjoy creating playing cards on the side, the challenge now is to produce a quality product, and to market it successfully. Lee McKenzie is well equipped to compete in this competitive marketplace, because he has experience from his time at Ellusionist, and he has the artistic and graphic skills not only to design a fine deck of playing cards, but also to create a stunning website to market it.

Personal passion: It's one thing to have the experience and talent to produce something, but it's altogether another to make this become a reality. Not only does Lee have the skills needed to create something unique and lasting, but he also has the passion and personal drive needed to make this all happen. It's evident not only from the quality of his designs, but from the quality of his website design, that he's absolutely committed to excellent and perfectionism in every respect.

Personal philosophy: Lee has a very clear vision about what he wants his lifestyle brand to be about, as is evident from all the mottos and quotes you'll find scattered throughout his website. For example, one of the pages for the Bloodlines decks says this: "Defy. You're the author of your own story. The hero in your own life. Like all great heroes, the Bloodlines bow to no-one. With unique, striking, border-defying backs, they tell a fearless story of courage, victory and inspiring greatness. An iconic design guarded edge-to-edge by its signature Empire band." Lee has definitely managed to capture something of this idea in his style, and also on his website.



Stylish designs: Lee describes his own vision for beauty and style in design as follows: "Beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, but quality is found in the details. Designed from the ground up, they're an elegant fusion of beautifully bold and highly functional. From the backs, faces and intricate pips to the jokers and the reimagined court cards, the Bloodlines leave no detail untouched." With his Empire series, Lee has very much accomplished this goal, and the positive reception that both decks have had confirms that these are truly something special, and are highly regarded by the discerning collector.

Epic designs: The intent behind the Empire decks was to create something epic, and which captures something of the grand story behind an empire. The intricate details, and the addition of elements borrowed from heraldry (like the `coat of arms' elements in the design), all contribute to an epic feel. The cards have an enormous amount of detail, which is emphasized by the minimalist colour scheme, with a result that is truly reminiscent of detailed stone carvings that hark back to the medieval kingdoms. The outcome is a beautiful and stylish deck of playing cards in an attractive tuck box, both of which convey something of the epic feel that Lee McKenzie was aiming for with this design.

Different designs: The Empire Bloodlines series still has the blood of the original Empire deck running in its veins. There are core elements that return, but these have been tweaked and modified to incorporate new elements, and create a whole new design that stands on its own. So this deck is not just about slapping on a different colour to an existing design, but is a fresh take on an established design, that goes in its own direction and with its own emphases, while still staying true to its roots. You could consider it a new spark of life in the Empire brand, and a son that is very much in the mould of its father, while still having its own identity and character.

Quality cards: It's one thing to have a quality design, but you also need a quality printing as well. The playing cards from the Empire series have been produced by United States Playing Card Company, makers of the famous Bicycle cards. That means that these are high quality cards, with an air cushion finish, for beautiful handling. The Limited Edition of the Bloodlines series features black backed cards, and Lee has opted to print this deck with Legends Playing Card Company. In my experience, cards from Legends are even higher quality than USPCC, and especially with a black deck that is a very sensible choice, because this card-stock is even more durable and long-lasting, and so the black cards are much less likely to show signs of chipping and wear than a USPCC produced deck. They also have a cleaner cut and all-round beautiful feel that shuffles and handles supremely well.

Lifestyle brand: Not only does the Kings & Crooks brand have a very definite focus, it also has a very professional look. It's obvious that Lee has done an amazing job in bringing his skills as photographer and designer to bear on the presentation of his products. If you check out his website, like me you'll be very impressed with the slick look, clean presentation, and visually attractive elements that have come together. It's incredibly polished and a real delight to navigate, and Lee has done a great job of showcasing his playing cards and other products in a very attractive and professional way. I particularly like the great playing card art that he has available, which would look great in a living room or as a display piece, such as some uncut sheets (deck of cards before it is individually cut) or an Impossible Bottle (deck of cards placed in a bottle with a neck to small for the deck - it’s magic!).

Where to get?: The best source is to obtain these decks directly from Lee McKenzie's website here.



Recommendation

Are Lee McKenzie's Empire decks and Empire Bloodlines decks over at Kings & Crooks for you? Clearly Lee has invested an enormous amount of passion and time in creating these designs, and they have been forged in the furnace of personal trial and tragedy, and what has emerged is something truly special.

If you appreciate sophistication and class, and the epic feel you see here appeals to you, then definitely head over to his website and check out what Kings & Crooks can offer you.

Want to learn more? Kings & Crooks: www.kingsandcrooks.com



Here are direct links for the decks featured in this review:
- Empire Playing Cards: Limited edition (sold out)
- Empire Bloodlines: Royal Blue edition
- Empire Bloodlines: Emerald Green edition
- Empire Bloodlines: Limited edition
- Other related items: Card art, Apparel, and Accessories




BoardGameGeek reviewer

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Brian Current
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Are these 100% plastic or coated cards?
 
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BC Indy wrote:
Are these 100% plastic or coated cards?
They are made from paper stock, the same as the typical playing cards produced by United States Playing Card Company, like their well-known Bicycle and Bee branded ones. USPCC uses different paper stocks, and these are their highest quality ones.

Magicians especially tend to prefer paper cards over plastic because they handle better and more smoothly for sleight-of-hand moves, and for card flourishing like fans and spreads. They're not as durable as 100% plastic, obviously, but they won't cut your hands, and many people prefer them because of their superior handling. For playing card games it's often a matter of personal preference; for traditional card games I love the handling of a deck like these.

As far as paper playing cards are concerned, these are about as good as you'll get, because USPCC is a reputable leader in the playing card industry. These particular decks are also are coated with USPCC's Magic Finish, to make them handle smoothly and optimally. For more details about the key elements that affect a USPCC-produced deck, see my article here.
 
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