The Build-A-Deck Workshop

A few years ago, a group of friends and I rented a cabin in the Poconos for three days including New Years Eve. The idea was to get away from the city for a few days, go snowboarding, hang out, cook, watch movies, sit in the hot-tub, etc. (This, by the way, is the only reasonable way to spend New Years. I used to be like you, looking for some function to attend to keep me entertained on NYE. They all suck. You don't go hang out in a crowded ballroom listening to some shitty DJ any other day of the year, why would you do it on the night that's supposed to be most celebratory? Grab your friends, rent a little house somewhere, cook a bunch of food, watch Ryan Seacrest or whatever goofy NYE show is on, kiss everyone at midnight, it's the only way to go.)

Over the course of the three days we were away, we played some cards, and I did a number of tricks with one of the decks as well (eventually making this particular deck unusable for games). As the days wore on, the deck evolved into a unique and evocative souvenir of this excursion. There were drawings and meaningful words written all over the cards from various tricks. An angel on one of the cards had moved from one end to the other (Paul Harris). The pips on the four of clubs had migrated to the same corner (Doug Conn). The hearts on the three of hearts were now three chosen colors (Me). There were markings up and down the side of the deck (Another PH trick, Big Tiny). This deck that we had used for games, tricks, building a card house, had essentially become a little scrapbook of our time together. It had been "magically" altered in some ways, but the personal alterations of everyone's pictures and "magic words" written on the cards were just as important. When we departed I left the deck with the couple (Maria and Jeff) who had done all the planning and handled the logistics for this get-together. It's a souvenir they keep and cherish now many years later. This is something I've become very cognizant of in recent years: souvenirs of an effect that remind people not just of a magic trick, but of a great time they had. (See the upcoming Jerx Book for a couple of effects that bear this in mind.)

A couple months back a small group of us were getting together for another cabin outing. Again, Maria and Jeff were being awesome about handling all the boring details so that the rest of us could just show up and have fun. I wanted to do something similar with the deck to give them another token of my appreciation, but I didn't want to do the exact same thing, so here is what I came up with...


There's a group of six of us at a cabin in the woods. We've just had dinner and someone suggests playing poker. I toss a sealed deck of cards on the table and excuse myself to the bathroom and tell them to deal me in while I'm away.

I'm in the bathroom squeezing out a big, juicy, brown carrot into the toilet bowl. I'm just kidding, I'm not doing any bodily functions. I'm just biding my time in the bathroom until I hear some commotion from the other room. 

I come walking out, drying my hands, saying, "Ahhhh.... now that's what I call launching a butt shuttle... hey... what's up?"

Everyone is gathered around the table with my deck of cards. 

"I don't think we're going to be playing cards much this weekend," says my friend Neal.

"Why not?" I ask. 

"Take a look," he says. And I walk over to the table and see that the entire deck is blank, front and back. 

"You've got to be shitting me," I say.

"What is it?" someone asks.

"Oh, it's just a misprint," I say. "Well, not a misprint, but a mistake at the factory. They somehow didn't print the cards but cut them and boxed them. It's known to happen. And if it happened to one deck that means it probably happened to a whole pallet of them. That sucks. I don't think it's worth going into town to get a deck. Let's just watch a movie."

"We could draw the cards on them," my friend Kristen suggested.

"Hmmm... yeah, I think that might work," I said.

And what do you know? I just happened to have a black and a red sharpie in my bag. That's convenient. 

So, we did sit down to watch a movie (The Green Inferno by Eli Roth. If you like the idea of a bunch of activist college students getting stranded in the Amazon after a plane crash only to be eaten by the Amazonian tribe they went down their to protect, then you'll love this movie) and, as we watched, I also drew a deck of cards for us to use. After I'd drawn the first few I paused the movie and said, "This will probably only work if we're all a part of it [what does that mean?]. So I want you all to draw one card too. What are your favorite cards?" And I gave them each a single blank card to draw their favorite card on. So I would draw a few cards, then hand the markers to one of them to draw their card. I'd draw a few more then have someone else draw her card. Occasionally I'd hand the deck to someone and ask them to add details to the back or face of one of the cards I was working on. It took the full length of the movie, but by the end I had drawn a nicely terrible looking deck of cards. 

For the most part the faces were simple.

I did do one "nudie" card. Here it is for you to gratify yourself to.

I can draw decently if I invest ten times the amount of time a naturally good drawer will use, but I wasn't going to do that in this case. There was no point. Plus my shitty drawings had a certain charm to them.

For most of the backs I just did some random scribbles.

Although I did do one of those corny skull back designs. 

And I did some abstract versions of a Bicycle back.

And, my favorite, the Bulldog Squeezers back.

When it was done I showed the deck to everyone to get their assessment and see if they wanted to play some poker. 

"But you drew the backs," someone said, "so you'll know which cards are which."

"Oh... wait... no...," I said, "We're not going to use the deck like this. This is just like... a rough draft," I said. "Look."

And I spread the deck between my hands, first face-up, then face-down, and continued spreading and turning and flipping and at some point in there the deck transformed into a real red-backed Bicycle deck of cards.

"Let's play," I said, walking into the other room. Leaving my friends frozen and stunned -- five mouths dropped wide-open.

A couple days later when we were getting ready to leave I gave the normal red deck to someone to shuffle. I took the deck back and spread it between my hands and had them each touch the back of any card and I outjogged each chosen card from the deck. I asked them to all cup their hands into one large "bowl" and I stripped the card they chose out and placed them in their hands with my hands on top. I made some comment about what a great time I'd had that weekend and how happy I was to get to spend time with them. Then I lifted my hands and the cards they'd picked had transformed into the cards they'd each drawn a few days ago.

I picked up the deck and with a shake all the other cards transformed into the hand-drawn cards as well and I immediately handed the deck to my friends to examine. Then I added the other five hand-drawn cards that my friends were holding. Assembled the deck together, put it in the case, and gave it to Maria and Jeff as a souvenir to remember the weekend and cemented my legacy as the greatest party guest of all time.


This is really my type of trick. It's unrelentingly magical. There is no straight line explanation. It plays out over the course of an evening, and doesn't conclude until a few days later. And it leaves the spectator with a one-of-a-kind souvenir.

This trick was inspired by different versions of a classic gimmicked deck of cards. You should know what that deck is if you're reading this site.

The problem with that deck is -- as amazing as it is -- no one really thinks it's anything other than a gimmicked deck. Your audience will be impressed, but mainly they'll be impressed that it's possible to gimmick a deck to do such a thing. 

I wanted to do a similar effect, but do so in such a way that the deck was seemingly beyond suspicion. Now, no matter what happens, if a deck of cards changes from one state to another, your audience is going to want to look at that deck of cards. This has nothing to do with your performance. Don't let those fucking dimwits at the Cafe lie to you. If something changes drastically, your audience will want to look at it. That's the sign of a good audience and a good performer. There is no level of "audience management" that can deflect that. If they whittled the deck of cards themselves out of an oak tree and painted the backs with watercolors -- if they made the deck themselves -- and then it changed color, they'd want to look at it. The more convinced they are it's a normal deck, the more than want to look at it. When they know it's a gimmicked deck, then they feel no need to say, "Can I see that?" because they already know what up. 

But while I knew I wouldn't be able to, I thought I could still structure the effect in such a way that they would feel it was a genuinely normal deck (well, a normal deck hand-drawn on blank cards) that somehow changed into a real deck... for a few days. Transforming like Cinderella for a brief moment in time. 

You don't think they really believed that, do you?

No... but, I do believe it was the only explanation they could even entertain. Nothing else fit. Think of it from their perspective. They examined a blank deck. They watched me draw cards on this blank deck. They helped draw the cards. They saw it change into a normal deck. They played with that deck for the next two days. They then saw it change back into the hand-drawn deck which they immediately examined and ended up keeping. 

Even if they hit upon the methods used they don't make sense. "He must have switched the decks... but we saw the deck change." "It must have been a gimmicked deck.... Gimmicked? We drew the damn deck ourselves on blank cards!"

Here's how it was all accomplished. I'm going to breeze through this because if you end up doing some variation on this, you're not going to do it exactly how I did it.

I showed up that weekend with three decks on me. A normal red-backed deck. A blank deck. A gimmicked deck (I'm not naming it because I know it will drive some people crazy.)

The real blank deck was sealed up like a new deck. I tossed it on the table and sat in the bathroom waiting for them to open it and see the condition it was in. 

Once the decision was made to draw the deck, I wait until everyone's attention has shifted from the deck to something else, take the deck, bring it to my room, come back with the gimmicked deck and a red and black marker. I also have 5 normal blank cards on top of the deck.

As we watch the movie, they get the ungimmicked blank cards to draw their favorite card on, meanwhile I'm marking up the gimmicked deck. Occasionally I will hand the entire gimmicked deck to someone and ask them to draw a card back or face on the top card. They do. They're not suspecting anything. As far as they know they've already looked at these cards. 20 minutes ago they didn't know one blank deck existed in the universe. They're certainly not suspecting there's another gimmicked one here now. And besides, they're watching a movie, having a drink, etc. When you perform tricks that happen in the flow of people's lives, rather than as a separate moment where it is a "performance," you can get away with a lot of things. 

As they give me the cards they've drawn on the ungimmicked blank cards, I put them on the bottom of the gimmicked deck. When I have all of them I just take them and put them in my shirt pocket when no one's looking. See the last sentence of the previous paragraph.

When the movie ends I'm ready to perform. I have the normal red deck in my hoodie pocket. 

I show them the hand-drawn deck and transform it to the normal deck. I show the fronts and backs a couple of times. I am now going to count on something I've found to be true. When you show a group of people who know each other well a trick, you are afforded an extra beat after the effect to do fishy stuff. They don't immediately grab for the changed deck, instead they check in with each other first before they turn their attention to you or your props. And in this case the change is so visual and it's with a deck they seemingly helped me create, so there is a good few moments of astonishment while they glance around amongst each other. In that moment I say, "Oh, cool, let's play," and I peel off for the dining room so we can play cards. As soon as I turn the corner into the other room I put the gimmicked deck in one hoodie pocket and remove the normal deck from the other. The change is made before anyone has even unstuck their feet from the floor to move. I hear someone in the other room make the "my mind is blown" explosion sound behind me. 

They follow me into the room and now they do want to look at the deck. Knock yourself out. It's completely normal. I don't believe a deck switch ever crossed their mind. In the context of this trick, the logical notion of a "deck switch" would be that I switched a normal deck for the hand-drawn deck. But they know that's not what happened because they watched it transform. 

We end up using that deck of cards for the next couple of days.

On the day we're ready to go home I ask someone to shuffle the deck. I have the five cards they drew in my hoodie again, ready to be copped onto the bottom of the deck once it's returned to me. Once I have the deck back with the cards added to the bottom I have them each point to a card in the face-down deck. I ask them to all cup their hands into one bowl formation. I strip out the selected cards and switch them via Dingle's No-Lap Switch for the hand-drawn cards. In the same motion I turn my left hand over into my friend's hands, apparently dropping the five selections, but my hand hides that it's really their hand-drawn cards. I say some nice words about our time together and put the normal deck in my pocket while all attention is on my other hand and the cards beneath it. I reveal the change, and while they're reacting I remove the other deck from my left pocket.

What other deck?

Haha. Okay, remember that original blank deck they were playing around with that first night? Well, over the past few days, when I've had some moments alone, I've been making an actual hand-drawn deck out of that deck. I've matched up drawings from the gimmicked deck I drew a few days earlier. And I've copied some of the elements my friends drew on that gimmicked deck on this ungimmicked one. Now, in addition to this ungimmicked hand-drawn deck, there is a gimmicked pair from the gimmicked deck that has been split and is sandwiching this hand-drawn deck -- with the normal back on top, and a normal face on the face of the deck. Can you picture it? In other words, what I hold in my hand looks exactly like the normal deck they just shuffled, but it's anything but. 

I now draw all attention back to the "normal" deck in my hands. I give it a shake (a pass) and it morphs back into the drawn deck and I immediately hand it to someone. Why not? It's one measly gimmicked pair of cards (that is completely camouflaged as a single drawn card due to the nature of the gimmick) sandwiched on either side by 26 fully examinable, normal, hand-drawn cards. The second transformation of the deck is just as powerful as the original one a few days before. Specifically because I hand it directly to someone. If, in their replaying of the original effect, the notion of a switch was ever considered, this change back to the drawn deck seems to undercut that idea. 

As I put the cards in the card case, and give the deck one last appreciative once-over, I just palm out the one gimmicked card(s) when no one's paying attention.

Is this a lot of work? Yes. But it's not that bad for something that is this strong. And for me it's definitely worth it. It took me far longer to write this blog post than it took me to work out the trick originally. The only annoying part is drawing the deck. But the first time around you're doing it with your friends while hanging out, so it's not a big deal. The second time... well, the second time does suck. I can't argue that.