Produced for The Conjuring Arts Research Center (CARC) by USPCC, the Erdnase 216 deck purports to be as close a replication of the original 1902 Bee 216 deck as is possible. Based on a recently rediscovered original deck, these cards are unique in nearly every way compared to their modern counterparts. They are available in both tan and the green hue currently en vogue.
Here’s what CARC has to say about them:
Last fall Conjuring Arts started some new experimentation, taking our research in a completely new direction. We did three major test runs at great expense which allowed us to successfully create what we proudly call our Erdnase Finish. This new finish is the thinnest and smoothest card that can be produced at US Playing Card Company. When measured by caliper a 52 card deck is merely 14.5 mm. This combined with a smooth finish (just as all the cards were in Erdnase’s time) creates a deck that feels as close to the 1902 Bee as is possible to make today. The only real difference is that our new reproduction is a bit slipperier than it’s [sic] 1902 predecessor. Today the manufacturing process uses a plastic material in coating the paper and 100 or so years ago this was more of a varnish that can no longer be used for cards.
This review will focus on the tan deck. Much ado has been made about these cards, so let’s take a look and see what all the fuss is about.
Name: Erdnase 216
Company: The Conjuring Arts Research Center
Release date: 5 March 2013
Finish: Proprietary “Erdnase Finish”
Colors: Green, Tan
From the get-go, these cards have an almost “holy” aura about them. Nearly every card enthusiast has read, or at least knows of, SW Erdnase’s 1902 manual “Expert at the Card Table”. This legendary tome is widely considered the gold standard for instruction of card manipulation, and the mystery surrounding its provenance grows greater by the year. This review will avoid any speculation of this aspect, as there are more pages devoted to the mystery than there are in the book itself. What we can say without question, however, is that the author demonstrated his sleights using a Bee deck, as seen in illustrations throughout the book. Card printing technology has changed dramatically in the more than 100 years since publication of the book, so finally getting one’s hands on a deck like the one Erdnase used is very exciting indeed.
The first thing one notices when approaching the wrapped deck is that there is no stamp seal. This isn't necessarily odd in a small-run deck, but if CARC was trying to be as faithful to the original as possible, then they missed a step here. The pictures of their original deck clearly show a stamp seal, so this omission is confusing at the very least. Aside from that, there’s nothing particularly special about the tuck case itself. Yes, it reproduces the original box, which is quaint, but there’s not much else to say about it. The bottom flap legend describes the creation and inspiration behind the deck.
The back design is, of course, a reproduction of the original deck. CARC believes this to be the back alluded to in the illustrations from “Expert at the Card Table”, and I guess I’ll have to side with them. There aren't any other decks that seem to match the illustrations, and some artistic license can be forgiven in not attempting to draw these things dozens of times. From directly above, they appear to be a distorted wood grain design. The distortion comes courtesy of the horizontal lines that run the entire length of the card.
When viewed from an oblique angle, the distortion dissipates and the wood grain pattern becomes very clear.
One thing that may be of interest to magicians is that the back design is not a two-way pattern. At a glance, they may seem to be mirrored, but close inspection reveals differences at the ends. In a modern deck, this would be a point of concern, but in 1900 card magic wasn't quite the industry it is today, so Bee can be forgiven for not being concerned with this detail.
The Ace of Spades is another question mark in this deck. The picture of the original on CARC’s website shows an older style Ace of Spades (for example, see the “92” designation wrapped around the stem of the spade), but the reproduction is almost identical to Bee’s current design. The main difference between this deck and the modern Bee AoS is the word “Bee” itself – an angled, serif font in the Erdnase deck, and a stylized, sans-serif font in the current production. Again, this is a minor quibble, but if they were striving to recreate the look of the original deck as closely as possible, why make such an obvious omission?
The other thing about the Ace of Spades that bothers me is that the font and pips used in the corners is in the modern style (as it seems to be in the photos of the original deck) but every other card uses an older, “typewriter” style font (including the remaining Aces). I rather like this older font, as it seems like it could have come from an old, worn down printing press that had lost some crispness over the years. The font is shorter and thinner than on modern cards, and the pips throughout the deck have a more rounded appearance than we are used to. Again, this is a very pleasant stylization and further serves the worn-out look of the print.
The court cards match other early 20th century decks, with more ornate faces, and again we see the rounder pips and shorter, thinner fonts.
Standard courts - top, Erdnase 216 courts - bottom
Standard courts - top, Erdnase 216 courts - bottom
The jokers are the standard black-and-white Bee jokers from current decks (which may or may not be reproductions of the original, but no pictures exist on CARC’s website for comparison).
Now that we finished discussing the overall design elements, let's get into what makes this deck so unique: the finish and stock. I promise you, you've never used a card like this before. They are thinner than current cards (per CARC, the entire deck measures just 14.5 mm thick). This makes passes, changes, and other card manipulations feel odd at first, but it’s quickly overcome, as it doesn't feel drastically different from what one is used to.
The finish, on the other hand, is otherworldly. Everyone who has touched a playing card in the last 75 years is used to the air cushion, cambric, or some other textured finish. CARC, along with USPCC, spent a long time trying to emulate the finish from pre-1910 decks, and they've come up with something unlike anything I've ever seen. Without delving too much into the history of the printing process, let me say that current cards use a plastic coating (with a textured surface), whereas before 1910, there was no texture, and until the latter quarter of the 20th century, the “slip” feel was provided primarily by a “varnishing” process. One may associate the newer finishes with slipperiness, but I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Erdnase finish, which is not textured, is slipperier than anything else I’ve ever used.
Erdnase 216 on top.
I've saved this detail until the end of the review, but it’s absolutely the first thing one notices when handling this deck. There is no comparison that comes to mind – baseball cards are too thick, CCG cards (such as with Magic: The Gathering) have no finish. The closest analogue to the feel of these cards would be a stack of glossy photos. They slip and slide all over the place, making the holding of fans very difficult (without the modern textured finish, there’s so little surface area that the cards have almost nothing to grip on). Don’t get me wrong – they fan beautifully, but without an iron grip, that fan starts to fall apart quickly.
The finish and stock even affect the feel of the sides of the deck. Try to overhand shuffle a new deck of Bicycles or Bees, and you’ll feel the comparatively “rough” edges, almost like fine sandpaper. With the Erdnase 216 deck, there is no such feeling.
One final mention – whether it’s because of the stock, or the finish, or a combination of the two, these are some incredibly durable cards. I’ve been using them for about a month now, and they have not lost shape one bit. They hold their form and snap back to straightness after countless riffles, faros, passes, and other abuse.
Notes on the Erdnase 216 deck:
- While numbers have not been released, CARC says there were a “very limited” number of these decks printed.
- The identity of SW Erdnase has never been revealed, and even the illustrator of “Expert at the Card Table”, who spent time with Erdnase in order to create the drawings, could not recall his name or anything other than a very basic physical description.
- Despite being thinner, the deck is heavier than modern cards. This is likely due to the weight lost in texturing a finish. (In the picture below, the modern Bees are on the left and the Erdnase 216 are on the left.)
Erdnase 216 is a challenging deck to review. There is no comparable deck in production today. While they serve as a great talking point, they aren’t cards one is likely to use in everyday card manipulation or magic. That being said, they may be a great deck for those looking to improve their skills, as the handling is much more difficult to get a grip on (no pun intended) than modern decks. I like this deck, I play with it all the time, but I can’t say that I’d use it outside of the house or even show it to anyone who wasn’t interested in cardistry or Erdnase.