ARRCO Playing Cards

I love card games. I love card magic. I also love customized playing cards, and the exotic colours and patterns that these come with are often exactly what I'm in the mood for!

But sometimes I just want something plain and ordinary, so that looks don't play any role in what is going on, and all the focus can be on the game or on the magic. It is in those situations that I've lately been pulling out my ARRCO Playing Cards. I have a two deck set, one in red and the other in blue.

The History of ARRCO Playing Cards

This is a set of playing cards with a long history, and has many enthusiastic devotees due to the admiration and popularity it has enjoyed, especially from many magicians. So let's first set the stage by learning something about the brand name.

Shown here are a couple of the original Arrco decks which have now been the subject of a 2018 reprint. In their prime, Arrco decks were a hot commodity, and they continue to be a beloved deck for many magicians and card players today.

The ARRCO Playing Card Company started operations in 1927, but under a different name: Arrow Playing Card Company. The Arrow Playing Card Co was led by Theodore Regensteiner, who was the inventor of the four-color lithograph press.

Based in Chicago, the company took Chicago's "Century of Progress" World's Fair in 1933-34 as opportunity to announce its new identity under the name Arrco. In conjunction with this, Arrco produced a promotional deck entitled "Century of Progress Playing Cards" (shown below). This was a tribute to the fair, and also sought to capitalize on thousands of visitors to the Fair in order to promote the look and feel of its new cards.

Already at that time the Cincinnati-based USPCC was an industry giant, but Arrco soon gained a loyal following of its own. This was largely due to its high quality card stock and elegant graphics, which it made available in a signature red and blue, just like the reprint that is the subject of this review. But despite it's signature red and blue decks, Arrco also also produced many other playing card designs, including many that used original art prints.

In the years that followed, Arrco continued to improve the quality of its playing cards, experimenting with better cardboard and better finish, and eventually earned a solid reputation as a lively competitor to USPCC.

In 1941 Arrco made a real break-through that would contribute significantly to their later success, when they developed what they called their "Plastic Coated Duratone Cards". The innovation here was that these cards had a special special coating that made it possible to clean the cards with a damp cloth.

The ad copy promised that these were "Easy To Clean, Simply Wipe With Damp Cloth", and the new finish was billed as follows:

"It's a quick trick to remove soil, candy or ink stains from Plastic-Coated Duratone cards ... a damp cloth, a wipe, and presto - they're like new! At this time, not even a magician could supply the tremendous demand for Duratone cards."

As evidence of their popularity and success is the fact that the US government made large orders of the cards with the new Duratone finish for the army. A special deck design was even produced by Arrco for military service members.

Arrco continued to churn out playing cards well into the 1980s, but in 1987 the Regensteiner family decided to sell their operations. The publishing arm of children's books was taken over by Grolier Inc, while the playing card division was taken over by its long term rival USPCC, which had gobbled up many other competitors already.

USPCC continued publishing decks of playing cards under the Arrco brand for another decade or so. But while the original Arrco decks were plastic coated, USPCC printed the decks in their usual paper stock. Despite this change, the Jokers continued to say "Plastic Coated" as part of their iconic design. As such, the Arrco decks handle the same as other USPCC produced paper playing cards with an air cushion finish.

The Arrco playing cards continued to be beloved by many card handlers, and highly regarded for their looks and their performance. In its hey-day, the signature Arrco back design in red and blue was very popular, and is still considered beautiful today, with many people loving the quality and design of the classic Arrco design.

For example, here's how Paul Lelekis describes his experience with them: "I used AARCO's exclusively since the late 1980s, for years while table-hopping, until they became unavailable. These decks fan easily, they last longer (performance-wise) than Bicycles, and I have stuck thousands of these cards on many ceilings. They are my all-time favorite cards to use and are very easy to manipulate. AARCO's are the best performance cards in the world."

But eventually the popular Arrco brand started to fade into obscurity, and USPCC discontinued the decks; hence the need for a reprint.

The 2018 ARRCO Reprint

The standard Arrco deck is still in demand, and I've been told that 2011 was the last time it was most recently reprinted. Will Roya from was able to secure an arrangement with USPCC to produce a limited edition reprint in 2018, in order to bring this very practical worker's deck back into print, with 2,500 copies of both the red and blue versions of the deck being produced.

For the most part the tuck case of the 2018 limited edition reprint is the same as the original deck, but some modifications have been made to fit USPCC's requirements. For instance, as far as I could tell, the original Arrco decks said "US Regulation" on the front of the box, but this isn't on the 2018 reprint.

But besides small differences, the tuck box does otherwise features the classic ARRCO look in red and blue, with the back of the box featuring the design of the card backs, either in red or blue. For additional looks as a pair, the red box has a blue seal, while the blue box has a red seal.

Identifying the 2018 reprint is a simple matter - the bottom of the tuck box has the logo and brand information, while the flaps inside the tuck box have a card reveal: a Jack of Clubs on the red deck and an Ace of Hearts on the blue deck.

The card backs have a generous white border, and feature the classic and intricate design for which the Arrco brand is famous. It's far more detailed and complex than most back designs, and this is exactly why many people love it. Yet it retains the mirrored symmetry that most people prefer to see on a card back.

Apparently when Arrco was a separate company, this is the back design used on their Club Casino and Duratone Club Reno brands of playing cards. It is still revered by many magicians and professional card handlers around the world.

The card faces have a traditional and standard look, although the court cards are not the same as what you'll see on a standard Bicycle rider-back deck.

The colours are the same but the patterns are not, with a slightly more intricate design that seems more sophisticated and less garish. It also cleverly incorporates tiny suit pips on the clothing of the characters.

Quite frankly, personally I prefer these court cards over the standard Bicycle rider-back courts!

The number cards are standard, and complement the court cards well. The observant will notice that the shape of the pips is slightly different than those of a typical Bicycle rider-back deck.

The Ace of Spades features an over-sized pip which incorporates the four pips. Maybe it's a coincidence, but the arrangement of the spade and the club pip reminds me of an arrow - perhaps a faint vestige of the company's original Arrow name?

The two Jokers feature a smiling Jester face. The "Plastic Coated" reference is somewhat of an anachronism, since these are very definitely ordinary playing cards with USPCC's usual embossing and Magic Finish for smooth and consistent handling. But it is a remnant of an iconic design, so it has been preserved as part of the artwork, even though the cards today are no longer plastic coated.

Each deck also includes two extra gaffs not present in the original Arrco decks - the red deck has a double facer and red double backer, while the blue deck has a blank facer and a red/blue double backer. This makes it a good idea for magicians to get both decks, because then you get a full set of gaffs: a double faced card, blank faced card (blue back), plus two double backers (one in red, the other red/blue), which enables you to perform a range of different effects with these decks if you are into card magic.

For good handling, these decks have an embossing air cushion finish, with a traditional cut, and the usual smooth performance you'd expect from a USPCC produced deck. Some will be surprised by that, since the original Arrco decks had a slick finish. The plastic coating and smooth finish was part of the appeal of the original Arrco playing cards for some people, although personally I much prefer the embossed air cushion finish, as do many others. Some people insist that the original Arrco decks lasted a lot longer than the Bicycle riderbacks, and that is possible, given the use of a plastic coating and a smooth finish. But these are no longer plastic coated, and are made in exactly the same way as all the other decks produced by USPCC, so their durability and performance can be expected to match modern decks, not the original Arrco decks.

Magicians have long loved these decks, and collectors will also appreciate the opportunity to seize a piece of history. While their performance won't be identical to the original Arrco decks, like other USPCC produced decks they will perform very well. And of course they feature the artwork and design that many magicians and collectors feel strongly connected with, so that will give them an immediate appeal for many people. Why not check out a pair for yourself?!

Strigiformes Owl Playing Cards

But what about if we want a deck that is far from `ordinary', and has a genuinely custom look? Might I respectfully suggest that you consider the Strigiformes Owl Playing Cards as a perfect choice? Given the legacy of the owl as a wise old bird, such a choice certainly has wisdom associated with it!

This deck was produced as a collaborative project between artist Renee LeCompte and playing card publisher Will Roya, who is now an experienced Kickstarter creator, and has a growing record of fulfilling projects speedily. The fact that this project was generously crowdfunded by more than 200% of its goal is an indicator of its appeal.

I know what you're thinking right now: you're wondering what "Strigiformes" means, although you suspect it has something to do with owls. Bingo, you nailed it! To quote from one reference resource: "Owls are birds from the order Strigiformes, which includes about 200 species of mostly solitary and nocturnal birds of prey typified by an upright stance, a large, broad head, binocular vision, binaural hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight."

Wow, is this ever an amazing deck! The artwork has just the right colour combinations to give a real nocturnal feel, with dark colours. That's immediately evident with the tuck box, which confronts us with a gorgeous owl with outstretched wings, and has an individually numbered seal that the collector will appreciate.

The artwork on the cards is incredible, starting with the card backs, which have a starry and dark night-sky background filled with a carefully designed symmetrical pattern constructed from detailed owl related images like eyes and feathers.

The Aces are all unique, featuring a full one-way image of an owl, asymmetrically counter-balanced by an intricate and exquisite design that features the suit of the card in a frosted white.

I'm especially smitten with the court cards, each of which features a different owl. Here's a complete list of all the owls featured on cards, listed in order of Ace, King, Queen and Jack for each suit:

Hearts (Tytonidae): Australian Masked Owl, Barn Owl, Oriental Bay Owl, Lesser Sooty Owl
Clubs (Strigidae - Strix): Barred Owl, Great Grey Owl, Ural Owl, Spotted Owl
Diamonds (Strigidae - Megascops, Otus & Ptilopsis): Eastern Screech Owl, Giant Scops Owl, White-fronted Scops Owl, Northern White-faced Owl
Spades (Strigidae - Bubo): Blakiston's Fish Owl, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Snowy Owl, Great Horned Owl
Jokers (Strigidae - Athene): Burrowing Owl

Close observation will also reveal how imagery from the Tarot has been incorporated, with the owls on Spades holding Swords, Diamonds holding Pentacles (Disks), Clubs holding Wands (Staves), and Hearts holding Cups (Chalices).

It's not just the artwork here that it stunning, but it is accompanied with a gorgeous graphic design that fits perfectly with the overall style of the deck. The narrow borders are on target, and help enhance the stylish feel.

But the number cards are great too, with highly customized pips, and intricate and ornate detail. Notice also how there are ornate versions of the suit pips on both left and right borders, which adds elegance and style, making this deck really stand out from the mediocre offerings sometimes appearing on the market these days.

For extra effect, the suit pips also appear throughout the cards as dark shadows, although you'll only notice this if you look very carefully.

This deck looks good in pictures, but I assure you that it looks even better in real life when the cards are in your hands in front of you!

Beside the 13 cards in all four suits, we also get two mischievous jokers. And for our magic loving friends, there's two gaff cards: a bonus Joker with a reveal, and a novelty 21 of Spades with artwork depicting an owl skeleton.

As an extra touch that those who love birds will appreciate, 5% of sales of this deck go to the Wild Bird Fund.

You can view the superb and highly detailed artwork for all the cards in an official image gallery here.

All the comments I've seen from people who have this deck have been extremely positive, and filled with praise for the artwork and beauty of these playing cards. With USPCC printing, handling is good as well. This deck is far from standard, but as a novelty or custom deck, it's one of my recent favourites. Highly recommended!


I'm glad that there's a variety of different decks of playing cards on the market. Sometimes we are just looking for something relatively unobtrusive and practical, and the iconic Arrco decks fit those criteria beautifully, while handling well at the same time.

But if it's customization that we want, it's hard to look past the stunning Strigiformes Owl deck. The artwork and design of these cards is absolutely exquisite, and the entire deck is a true work of art, that will be prized by the collector and much enjoyed by everyone who sees it.

So kudos to for creating some great new decks, and continuing to produce the goods for fans of custom playing cards around the world!

Want to learn more? You can find these decks on here:
- ARRCO Playing Cards
- Strigiformes Owl Playing Cards

BoardGameGeek reviewer

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If you made it to the end of this review and found it helpful, please consider giving a thumbs up at the very top of the article, to let me know you were here, and to give others a better chance of seeing it.
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Fantastic review as always, and a nice history lesson as a bonus!

FYI the links to the Arrco and Strigiformes decks have an extra trailing right straight bracket causing 404 errors on those links.
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MentatYP wrote:
Fantastic review as always, and a nice history lesson as a bonus!

FYI the links to the Arrco and Strigiformes decks have an extra trailing right straight bracket causing 404 errors on those links.

Thanks for the feedback and for catching that glitch with the links - now fixed.
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