When you decide to buy yourself a Tarot deck, it is best to go to a large book store or metaphysical store which carries a large selection of Tarot decks. (You may also want to look at pictures online at such sites as Tarot Passages, but it is best to see some in person to get an idea of their size, etc.) In Toronto, I highly recommend the World’s Biggest Book Store at 20 Edward Street. They carry many decks, and also have two large binders with card samples. If you don’t have access to a large bookstore or metaphysical store, try some of the little used bookstores, you might be surprised what you find. And, of course, you can always order decks online from Amazon, Chapters, or Tarot stores like Tarot Garden.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the number of decks available. The best advice I can give you is to choose a deck that appeals to you. However, I would suggest that you avoid theme decks, like The Dragon Tarot or The Unicorn Tarot, until you are more familiar with “standard” Tarot symbolism. Bearing that in mind, I would suggest buying deck that features the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) symbolism, which is the standard symbolism found in most Tarot books and on this site. Any of the following decks would be an excellent choice for a beginner:
Standard RWS (various re-colourings)
RWS Look-a-Likes (redrawn images, very similar to standard RWS)
Be aware that there are a few other systems of Tarot symbolism that are available. These include the Thoth Tarot of Aleister Crowley and the decks based on it; the Tarot de Marseilles; the Grand Etteilla Tarot; and the Visconti Sforza Tarot. Most have Major Arcana cards similar to the RWS system (which is only natural, since the RWS system grew out of most of these decks), but they generally have non-pictorial Minor Arcana, different numbering of the Major Arcana, and have acquired slightly or significantly different meanings for many of the cards. When starting out with the Tarot I would suggest avoiding these systems, at least for now. However they are all very interesting, especially to students of magick or Thelema in the case of the Thoth and Etteilla decks, and students of history in the case of the other decks.
There are also RWS-inspired decks which diverge to some extent from traditional symbolism or meanings. These include feminist decks like Daughters of the Moon Tarot, Motherpeace Tarot, and the Barbara Walker Tarot; as well as theme decks, like the Arthurian decks Hallowquest Tarot (also known as Arthurian Tarot) and The Legend Tarot, or the Ancient Egyptian inspired decks like The Ancient Egyptian Tarot and the shiny Nefertari’s Tarots. These are all wonderful decks, but because of the changes in symbolism they can be more difficult to learn with.
You might also see a large number of non-Tarot decks on your bookstore’s shelves. These are generally referred to as oracle decks. These are not Tarot decks. They vary in the number of cards, the images and symbolism used, as well as how the system works. Generally speaking, each deck has its own symbol set and a system conceived of by the author. These can be very effective tools, and can even be used to supplement Tarot reading. My favourite oracle decks are The Symbolon Deck, which is heavily based on astrology and uses images based on European myths, and The Goddess Oracle, which features the beautiful Goddess artwork of Hrana Janto and focuses on one’s relationship with various Goddesses.
Most, if not all, Tarot decks come with a small booklet inside the box. This is generally referred to as the Little White Book (LWB), and it gives basic card meanings, a description of the cards and one or two spreads. The LWB should provide just enough information to get you started reading with your new deck, but usually it isn’t very helpful when it comes to explaining the symbolism used in the cards. Understanding this symbolism is key, because once you become more comfortable with your deck you will find yourself pulling the meanings from the pictures and relying less and less on the LWB for help.
The deck you choose may have a larger book available, sometimes packaged in a set and sometimes separately. Most of these books offer excellent insight into the specific symbolism used by the artist, as well as more detailed card meanings. The best companion book I have come across is Robin Wood Tarot: The Book. These books can and can not be useful. Take you time to look through them before you decided to buy the companion book.
The usefulness of books also depends on the reading method you want to develop. Some readers like to study the traditional meanings of cards, and to these people books will be highly useful. Other readers prefer a more intuitive method, pulling their meanings entirely from the images on the cards. Some of these readers will not even look at the LWB. I would say though, in general, intuitive readers have a lot of experience, and likely studied books a good deal when they were new to Tarot reading. I prefer a mixed approach to Tarot reading. By that I mean, one learns the general meanings of the cards, which includes learning how the author may have altered the meanings in their deck, and one expands those meanings though personal experience and intuitive reading. Bearing that in mind, I would recommend obtaining both the extra book for your deck and a general Tarot book.
Some good Tarot books are available online, such as A.E. Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot. (You might recognize this name. A.E. Waite was one of the creators of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck.) Joan Brunning has made her tarot course available for free on her site Learning the Tarot. Right here on the Lotus Pond you can find information on Tarot card meanings, although the section isn’t quite complete. I would also recommend stopping by Aeclectic Tarot Forum. I’ve learned a heck of a lot from the people there.