I've been researching some of the elements that come into play that affect that quality and handling of a USPCC deck, and a comparison with decks by Legends/Expert Playing Card Company. This post has had the benefit of extensive input from Don Boyer, whose expertise and insights I gratefully acknowledge. Hopefully this article will help others who might be wondering about this, and prove a useful resource in the future.
==========USPCC Produced Decks
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 (with the exception of their mini decks, and their Artifice gaff decks) Ellusionist has their decks printed by
USPCC! However there are different options available when having cards printed by the US Playing Card Company:1. Stock: Bicycle Standard, Bee Casino, or Thin Crush
This refers to the paper used in the printing process, and qualities like its thickness, stiffness, and durability.
The original printings of Ellusionist's 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.
There can be variation in paper shipments, so while Bee Casino stock is usually thicker/stiffer than Bicycle Standard stock, this isn't always the case. According to Don Boyer's post here
, as of around 2013 USPCC no longer offers their card stock by weight in grams per square meter. So you can no longer state that Bicycle stock is 325 gsm, 300 gsm or any such number. From one of USPCC's biggest custom customers Don learned that when offering their two main stocks - Bicycle (lighter) and Bee Casino (heavier) - these are measured by thickness, and the thickness of each stock actually falls within a range
of thicknesses, and these two ranges actuall overlap. So it can sometimes happen that a deck produced with Bicycle stock has paper as thick as some Bee Casino stock decks, while a deck with Bee Casino stock has paper as thin as some Bicycle stock decks.2. 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
(sometimes called "Ivory"), but most other decks (including Bicycle) use an embossed texture
, which simply means the paper has dimples to help reduce the 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 and other USPCC produced playing cards are embossed just the same as standard Bicycle decks. The principle is the same as that the dimples on a golf ball, which create little pockets of air to reduce the wind resistance around the ball, allowing it to have more slip and travel further. An optimal dimple pattern in the paper's surface allows for better glide between cards, as well as between cards and a table's surface.
In older decks, the dimples of an embossed card were created not by pressing a metal roller with bumps into the paper, but at the end of the production process by the application of the card's coating using cloth rollers. Many finish names still used today (e.g. linen, cambric, linoid) originated in the fabric used on these cloth rollers, and these names persist even though cloth rollers are no longer used. Standardization in manufacturing and cost-cutting has resulted in companies like USPCC stamping the embossed texture into the paper itself, thus eliminating the cost of replacing cloth rollers, which also had a greater potential for causing problems.
The presence and depth of embossing also has an impact on handling. An embossed card tends to have a little more "give" to it when you flex it than over an unembossed (smooth) card made of the same paper at the same thickness. This may be a result of the modern embossing process, which presses dimples into the surface of the paper, possibly weakening the structure of the paper a little bit3. 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 was developed around 2011. It 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
", which was USPCC's code name for the coating when they first started experimenting with it. Ellusionist playing cards typically all have the Magic Finish. While this finish tends to be a preferred by magicians, others find it to be too slippery, and don't like the "chemical" smell of the cards when they first come out of the pack, which can linger for quite a while. The first deck to use Performance Coating was Ellusionist's Gold Arcane deck, the first deck to use the branded coating was the Bicycle Gargoyles deck, and the first known use on a smooth deck is believed to be CARC's Ivory version of the black/silver Bee Erdnase deck.
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. These different finish names are legacies from the days when decks did have unique coatings/finishes, which were applied with fabric/cloth-rollers (much like a painter would make a textured wall surface with a cloth-covered paint roller). Nowadays the texture is no longer in the coating, but crushed into the paper with steel rollers to create an embossed effect, which is identical for all USPC decks that are Embossed rather than Smooth.
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. 4. 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. Generally speaking casinos order decks to be made with a traditional cut, but for most people this difference in cut won't make any difference, unless you are doing weave shuffles, faro shuffles or certain gambling sleights.
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. The reason for this change is that a modern cut didn't require flipping the stock before feeding it into the die cutter; it was a simpler and more efficient process, thus making production less expensive by a few pennies per deck, which adds up in the long run. 5. Quality control: Q1 - Q4
USPCC also has different standards of quality control. Q1 is their highest standard, and where they check closely for the best results in areas like centering, print registration, cutting, colour, and flaws. Q4 is their lowest standard, and is considered "tolerable" - it basically means that more margin is given for error. Ellusionist VP Jason Brumbalow explained this in 2010 as follows
: "USPC has a quality grade standard for each of their deck runs. This standard is a threshold benchmark for things like centering, registration, cutting, color, flaws, etc. The quality grade ranges from Q1 (best) to Q4 (tolerable). I’ve long listened to dozens of people talk about how Q1 doesn’t exist, Q1 is only reserved for Chuck Norris’ casino cards etc, etc. Spoiler Alert: (Straight from the upper deck of USPC) All Ellusionist decks are graded and printed at Q1. All of them. End of story.
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 being the paper stock.Other sources:
To learn more about USPCC produced decks, I also recommend the following articles:
- Jason Brumalow's article "Everything you wanted to know about USPC & Ellusionist, but were afraid to ask
" from 2010.
- David Kenney's video
from 2014, which has some great info about the different variables that affect the quality of USPCC decks (although at the time USPCC didn't yet have the Thin Crush stock, and David also is of the (mistaken?) opinion that Standard Finish means there is no coating. See also his three related articles "How does this deck handle
", "But what if it isn't a USPCC deck?
" and "Other factors in card handling
".LPCC/EPCC Produced DecksStock/Texture: Diamond/Master, Classic, Elite/Damask, or other
Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) and Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC) have a slightly different approach to all this. They use a single name that doesn't distinguish between their finish and their stock. So they both offer several different "finishes", which are really different combinations of paper stock and embossing. Their paper stock comes pre-embossed from overseas suppliers, and the main differences between their "finishes" has to do with the type of paper and embossing used. Their stocks not only vary in thickness and firmness, but are also embossed to varying depths, making each unique in terms of how they handle.
Note that the two companies use the same factory in Taiwan and often collaborate, but give their own labels to finishes that are actually identical (apart from a couple of exceptions). The three main finishes that LPCC/EPCC both offer are as follows: 1. Diamond/Master Finish:
This is the thinnest and least-embossed paper stock, which makes it feel somewhat oily/plastic-like, but it is also the stiffest and longest lasting finish, being very hardy/durable, and the cards have a real spring to them. The embossing is similar to Bicycle's "Air Cushion Finish".2. Classic Finish:
This is a thicker paper stock, which has more of a matte look, feels softer and more papery, and is not as stiff as the Diamond finish. The embossing is also similar to Bicycle's "Air Cushion Finish". Of all the finishes, this has an overall feel that is arguably closest to a Bicycle type deck.3. Elite/Damask Finish:
This uses a similar paper stock to the Classic Finish, but uses a different and deeper embossing pattern on the cards, making them feel even softer yet. It's not as commonly used yet, but reviews I've seen about it have been positive. (For some discussion on the Damask finish, see this thread
LPCC (only) also offers an Emerald Finish
, which is made from thin paper stock with minimal embossing and with a slick coating, giving it a similar feel to the Diamond Finish but with a stiffness falling somewhere between that and the softer Classic Finish. Unlike the other three finishes, this is produced in a factory in China rather than Taiwan, and normally has standard Casino-cut edges rather than the superior Diamond Cut used for the other three finishes. Recently LPCC has said that this factory now has the ability to use their superior cutting process for the Emerald Finish as well.
EPCC (only) also offers several other finishes:
- Robusto Finish
(code-named Iron Stock
while in development), which is a stock that results in very thick cards, considerably more so even than the Bee Casino stock used by USPCC. It makes weave/faro shuffles difficult, and has a high degree of stiffness that takes some breaking in and can make springing difficult, but is extremely durable.
- JN Finish
, which they describe as follows: "This represents our constant efforts to duplicate the venerable Jerry's Nugget Casino cards from the '70s. Probably we, nor maybe anyone else, can get closer. These are very similar to the Master Finish cards that are so popular but these are crushed .01mm thinner and you can feel it.
- Stud Finish
, which they describe as follows: "Our new Stud Finish. Very soft and pliable. We think they are the softest high quality cards on the market today.
The JN Finish and Stud Finish are new finishes, produced in a Chinese factory. Early reports on decks produced with the JN Finish (e.g. Jackson Robinson's Legal Tender deck) have been mixed, with numerous instances of very poor quality decks. Forthcoming decks to be produced in this finish include Giovanni Meroni's SINS, which will give more information to work with.Coating: Same for all
LPCC/EPCC uses the same coating for all their card stocks/finishes, which they are constantly experimenting with to improve. I don't have enough experience with it to comment on how it compares to the Magic Finish or Standard Finish by USPCC. But this is what LPCC has to say about it: "The feel of the coating depends on the paper stock that is coated, but we feel it has the perfect amount of drag, slip, as well as durability. In my opinion I feel the Magic and Standard finish are too slippery and degrade very quickly. Legends PCC cards have a very specific feel and drag that no other brand (other than our close partners at Expert PCC) possesses, and the wide range of paper choices from soft to stiff will allow nearly any customer to find that perfect feel that suites their use case, whether it be for magicians, poker players, or cardists.
" (source: email correspondence with LPCC).Cut: Traditional
LPCC/EPCC decks are all given a "traditional cut
" (face to back) rather than the "modern cut
" (back to face) used by USPCC. Their cutting process involves a Diamond Cut technique that produces a much smoother cut than UPSCC, resulting in beautiful clean edges, which are clearly superior to those of a USPCC deck, and make maneuvers like a perfect faro far easier and smooth.Printing: Sheet-fed
LPCC/EPCC only uses a sheet-fed press
(which USPCC also uses for smaller print runs), while a web press
is preferred by USPCC for the sake of efficiency and speed when doing higher-volume print runs of many thousands. This sheet-fed press gives greater precision in printing and cutting, and a consistently crisp and bold printing registration, and also enables the use of narrower borders than normal. This gives a greater range of options for designers, and also can produce a classier look.Overall Comparison
Decks produced by LPCC/EPCC rival those of USPCC in quality, and in many respects (e.g. the cut of the cards) surpass it. While not everyone likes the thinner/stiffer cards of the Diamond/Master Finish, which have quite a different feel and handling from a standard Bicycle deck that most people are used to, the Classic finish and the Elite/Damask finish used by LPCC/EPCC are good alternatives to a USPCC produced deck. In terms of durability, there is a report
from someone who placed a Legends card and a USPCC card under running tap water for 5 seconds, with no damage resulting to the Legends card, unlike the USPCC produced card. The card-stock of all the Legends cards is also brighter/whiter than USPCC's Bicycle stock, and thus has a cleaner look.
To learn more about LPCC/EPCC produced decks, I also recommend the following articles:
- "Legends Playing Card Company - Legendary playing cards
" by EndersGame. This is a pictorial overview of LPCC and some of their decks.
- "More Legendary Playing Cards - Comparing all four finishes
" by EndersGame. This is a follow-up article with detailed comparison between the four LPCC finishes.
- "What's In An Expert Card? Plenty!
" by Don Boyer. This gives an extensive overview of the manufacture and quality of decks by Expert Playing Card Company. You can find it in the complimentary issue of CARD CULTURE which is available right here: CardCulture-Special-Issue-2015.pdf
==========Please provide any corrections or updates, and I will edit this post accordingly to ensure its accuracy, in the hope this material will be helpful to other people who may have similar questions. NB: I've also cross-posted this article at Playing Card Forum here, to maximize the number of people who will see this and can contribute corrections.