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Many people in the world of playing cards might not recognize the name of British designer Lee McKenzie, but you should. He has designed numerous successful decks of playing cards for Ellusionist, one of the biggest players in the world of custom playing cards. His resume includes popular designs like Arcane Playing Cards (white and black), Artifice Playing Cards, Infinity Playing Cards, and Fathom Playing Cards.

But in 2013, Lee decided that it was time to stop freelancing, and he launched a deck of his very own: Empire Playing Cards, which was easily funded, and now commands prices of around $100 on the secondary market. He injected new blood into the Empire saga the following year, and 2014 saw the publication of his Empire Bloodlines series, which was inspired by ornate and elegant stone engravings, and brought the original Empire deck to a new level.

The next chapter in Lee's fascinating story begins in 2017, with the launch of a brand new website to market Lee's lifestyle brand: Kings & Crooks. Featuring cutting edge graphic design and stunning visuals, Lee sells branded items like playing cards, apparel, accessories, and card art. His motto is "Play by your own rules", and his lifestyle brand is all about carving your own mark on the world, telling your own stories, and forging your own path.

This sentiment also runs deep in the veins of the fine playing cards that Lee McKenzie has produced with his Empire series, and it's these decks that I'm taking a close look at in this review.



The Empire Bloodlines decks were produced in 2014, and are effectively the sequel to the original Empire deck. The Bloodlines were produced in three different versions: a matching Royal Blue and Emerald Green, and a Limited Edition in Black and Gold.

It's about injecting new blood into the original Empire deck, and Lee explains the thinking behind this sequel as follows: "I've spent the best part of the last year designing a brand new edition that embodies the very same epic values, obsessive detail and powerfully dramatic story telling design of its predecessor. However, the Bloodlines take the bold graphic style that the Empire series has become known for, and pushes it even further. They each stand strong with a unique style of their very own. Inspired by the beautiful, ornate and elegant stone engravings that emerged during the rule of one oft the most powerful Empires in history. These were times when legendary wars for world domination took place, courage was celebrated and honour was earned on the battlefield."

The thematic idea behind this series continues the philosophical motif that underlies all of Lee's work: "Choose. No one is born great. You create who you choose to be. Crafted with a daring spirit and a powerful design, the Bloodlines are built for those who know that greatness is to be achieved, not waited for. By choice, not chance."




The tuck case of the Empire Bloodlines Royal Blue deck is very beautifully designed, with the front of the tuck having a similar style as might be found on a coat of arms in a medieval setting.


The back of the tuck box features the design of the card backs. On both the side borders is a marginal glimpse of a blue banner - this looks especially great when more than one decks are placed next to each other.

Embossing on the box allows the box to have a great texture and royal feel, and the use of silver foil on the front only enhances this look of luxury.


A red seal offsets the blue on the box, and the two tuck flaps are adorned with a unicorn and lion in embossed silver foil, for a beautiful finishing touch.

To complete a look of complete class, the box has interior printing in blue, featuring a tiled arrangement of pips that are spaced out evenly against the background of an intricate and attractive pattern.


The back of the cards primarily has a hand drawn style of detailed black and white line work, with touches of blue to enhance the overall impression. It has a decidedly medieval look, with swords poking out, and the top and bottom of the cards has artwork that resembles a coat of arms, with a lion and unicorn leaning against a pillar. A small circle in the centre creates a pleasant focal point, and also ensures a static circular element when performing card flourishes with spins and twirls.


While the cards do have a border, which allows them to stand out from one another, they also have a small banner fragment in royal blue on the two opposite margins all the way to the edge, which looks amazing in fans and spreads, as it just pops out of the cards.


The faces of these cards are very elegant and impressive as well.

The court cards maintain the traditional feel, and so are very easily recognizable for use in card magic or card games. They all feature a large icon of the suit in the center of the card, which looks very nice, and is a unique stylish touch that helps set this deck apart from many others. Minimal colours are used for the courts, being just black and white, although the traditionally red suits of Hearts and Diamonds do feature the addition of some blue.


The indices are very interesting, being just the outline of the suit rather than filled in, but still in the colour of the suit. This creates a minimalistic look that is very pleasing and results in a unique visual aesthetic.


There is a intricate watermark-style background on each of the cards - close attention to the artwork of this watermark reveals that is actually one way (something that magicians might find handy).

Also, there is a watermark banner on the edges of the card faces, and like the design of the card-backs, this feature further enhances spreads and fans.


The pips are all slightly larger than standard, and have a bold and ornate look, which fits the style very well. They are all customized, but are still easily recognizable for what they are. The Hearts and Diamonds are blue instead of the standard red, which creates a very nice look and fits in with the overall colour theme employed by the deck.

The Ace of Spades features an oversized and stylized Ace pip with a lion and unicorn leaning up against a pole, with the word "Empire" above and "Kings & Crooks" below, all encased in an enclosed design of exquisite and ornate detail. Below the Ace are the words "Bloodlines Edition."


The Jokers feature a large dog-like creature with its mouth open, and a banner above with the word "Joker". The second Joker contains a very handy reveal for magicians, as it has in its mouth the Seven of Diamonds, with the banner above saying "7OFDS"; this can be used for great effects in magic, while the Jokers are still entirely usable in ordinary card games.


There are also two additional cards in the deck: an ad card for Kings and Crooks, and a double backer, also usable for magic effects.

The cards have been printed by the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), on a FSC-certified, premium quality casino grade stock. They handle great, with a reasonably soft stock and a smooth slippery coating that allows cards to slide easily and evenly over one another. The cards have also been traditionally cut, which is preferred by some card handlers, and allows for face-down weave shuffles to be accomplished.



The Empire Bloodlines Emerald Green deck is essentially the same as the Royal Blue Bloodlines deck, with the colour green replacing the blue.


Also, in this case the seal on the tuck box is blue instead of scarlet. But once again we have interior printing and wonderful foil accents, the same as with the Royal Blue deck.


These two decks are basically the same design, just with different colour tones, and both creating an elegant and sophisticated look, in the colour of your choice.


The ribbon edge on the sides of the cards now creates a pleasant green strip in spreads and fans.


Here's a couple of court cards, which illustrates Lee's unique take on the traditional style.


Notice how green is now used for the traditionally red suits instead of blue.


These number cards do a good job of illustrating the elaborate and ornate custom pips.


Both the colours and the styles of the card faces and card backs complement each other beautifully.


Once again the signature Ace of Spades is a showcase piece of elaborate artwork.


The Joker for this deck also has a reveal, but for this deck it is for the Two of Clubs, implemented in the same style as the reveal in the Royal Blue deck.


Together with the blue deck, this green deck successfully continues the Empire saga, which can be described as follows: "Breath-taking playing cards with a brave mission. The Empire Bloodlines dare you to look within, step out of line, and build your own Empire. It’s in your blood."



Personal story: Lee McKenzie's personal story is a very touching one. I've recounted it in summary in the opening paragraphs of this feature article, and I've pieced it together as a result of personal correspondence I've had with Lee, information I researched from other sources, and from what I learned by reading the story as you can find it here on the Kings & Crooks website. The personal loss of his grandfather was evidently a key turning point in his life, and those of us who have experienced grief or loss, will understand something of the place Lee was in at that moment of his life. But loss always places us at a crossroads, and Lee has chosen to respond to this by embarking on a journey forwards, meeting the challenges ahead, and forging a new path, one that led first to the Empires decks, and now to the Kings & Crooks brand. Without the pathway through pain, perhaps he would never have created these treasures, and we are only the richer for it.

Personal success: Before even beginning with the Empire series, Lee had already achieved success in the impressive decks of playing cards he created for Ellusionist. While his new Kings & Crooks brand is effectively a one-man operation, he does so with the benefit of personal experience and success in the playing card industry. As mentioned already, it's somewhat unfortunate that the success of Lee's first designs are usually associated with Ellusionist, and that the popular Arcane and Artifice series, and successful decks like Infinity and Fathom, have fuelled the Ellusionist train more than his own reputation as a designer. But it does mean that when you look at the Empire decks, you need to realize that these are the creations of an established and popular designer, even if they are the very first decks produced independently under his own label.

Personal investment: For Lee, designing a deck of cards is intensely personal, mainly because of how much he gives himself to the process, and invests in terms of the physical and mental resources required to accomplish it. This was one fact that led him to part ways with Ellusionist, and begin making his own name. In his words: "It struck me that time was too short to be giving, what felt like, tiny pieces of my soul with every deck I designed for Ellusionist. Designing cards means a lot to me personally, and I put so much into it." Given what he put into the creative process, I'm glad for Lee that at last he can be producing playing cards with his own name and own brand on them. It's something incredibly meaningful to him, and for me as a consumer, it makes the end result all the more meaningful to me as well.

Personal expertise: The custom-playing card market place is becoming more and more crowded all the time. But before complaining about that, let's remember that only five years ago we lived in a very different time, where the custom playing card market was only just beginning to get wheels. And the only people with the money and resources to use those wheels to produce quality playing cards were big name brands like United States Playing Cards, and those with connections in the magic world like Ellusionist and Theory11. It's exciting to live in an era where crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and where Asian printers like Legends Playing Cards now give individual designers the opportunity to compete with the big names. However, this has resulted in a flood of designs entering the market place, and the gap between something bad and something great is often a big one. For magicians or graphic designers who just enjoy creating playing cards on the side, the challenge now is to produce a quality product, and to market it successfully. Lee McKenzie is well equipped to compete in this competitive marketplace, because he has experience from his time at Ellusionist, and he has the artistic and graphic skills not only to design a fine deck of playing cards, but also to create a stunning website to market it.

Personal passion: It's one thing to have the experience and talent to produce something, but it's altogether another to make this become a reality. Not only does Lee have the skills needed to create something unique and lasting, but he also has the passion and personal drive needed to make this all happen. It's evident not only from the quality of his designs, but from the quality of his website design, that he's absolutely committed to excellent and perfectionism in every respect.

Personal philosophy: Lee has a very clear vision about what he wants his lifestyle brand to be about, as is evident from all the mottos and quotes you'll find scattered throughout his website. For example, one of the pages for the Bloodlines decks says this: "Defy. You're the author of your own story. The hero in your own life. Like all great heroes, the Bloodlines bow to no-one. With unique, striking, border-defying backs, they tell a fearless story of courage, victory and inspiring greatness. An iconic design guarded edge-to-edge by its signature Empire band." Lee has definitely managed to capture something of this idea in his style, and also on his website.


Stylish designs: Lee describes his own vision for beauty and style in design as follows: "Beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, but quality is found in the details. Designed from the ground up, they're an elegant fusion of beautifully bold and highly functional. From the backs, faces and intricate pips to the jokers and the reimagined court cards, the Bloodlines leave no detail untouched." With his Empire series, Lee has very much accomplished this goal, and the positive reception that both decks have had confirms that these are truly something special, and are highly regarded by the discerning collector.

Epic designs: The intent behind the Empire decks was to create something epic, and which captures something of the grand story behind an empire. The intricate details, and the addition of elements borrowed from heraldry (like the `coat of arms' elements in the design), all contribute to an epic feel. The cards have an enormous amount of detail, which is emphasized by the minimalist colour scheme, with a result that is truly reminiscent of detailed stone carvings that hark back to the medieval kingdoms. The outcome is a beautiful and stylish deck of playing cards in an attractive tuck box, both of which convey something of the epic feel that Lee McKenzie was aiming for with this design.

Different designs: The Empire Bloodlines series still has the blood of the original Empire deck running in its veins. There are core elements that return, but these have been tweaked and modified to incorporate new elements, and create a whole new design that stands on its own. So this deck is not just about slapping on a different colour to an existing design, but is a fresh take on an established design, that goes in its own direction and with its own emphases, while still staying true to its roots. You could consider it a new spark of life in the Empire brand, and a son that is very much in the mould of its father, while still having its own identity and character.

Quality cards: It's one thing to have a quality design, but you also need a quality printing as well. The playing cards from the Empire series have been produced by United States Playing Card Company, makers of the famous Bicycle cards. That means that these are high quality cards, with an air cushion finish, for beautiful handling. The Limited Edition of the Bloodlines series features black backed cards, and Lee has opted to print this deck with Legends Playing Card Company. In my experience, cards from Legends are even higher quality than USPCC, and especially with a black deck that is a very sensible choice, because this card-stock is even more durable and long-lasting, and so the black cards are much less likely to show signs of chipping and wear than a USPCC produced deck. They also have a cleaner cut and all-round beautiful feel that shuffles and handles supremely well.

Lifestyle brand: Not only does the Kings & Crooks brand have a very definite focus, it also has a very professional look. It's obvious that Lee has done an amazing job in bringing his skills as photographer and designer to bear on the presentation of his products. If you check out his website, like me you'll be very impressed with the slick look, clean presentation, and visually attractive elements that have come together. It's incredibly polished and a real delight to navigate, and Lee has done a great job of showcasing his playing cards and other products in a very attractive and professional way. I particularly like the great playing card art that he has available, which would look great in a living room or as a display piece, such as some uncut sheets (deck of cards before it is individually cut) or an Impossible Bottle (deck of cards placed in a bottle with a neck to small for the deck - it’s magic!).

Where to get?: The best source is to obtain these decks directly from Lee McKenzie's website here.



Are Lee McKenzie's Empire decks and Empire Bloodlines decks over at Kings & Crooks for you? Clearly Lee has invested an enormous amount of passion and time in creating these designs, and they have been forged in the furnace of personal trial and tragedy, and what has emerged is something truly special.

If you appreciate sophistication and class, and the epic feel you see here appeals to you, then definitely head over to his website and check out what Kings & Crooks can offer you.

Want to learn more? Kings & Crooks:


Here are direct links for the decks featured in this review series:
- Empire Playing Cards: Limited edition (sold out)
- Empire Bloodlines: Royal Blue edition
- Empire Bloodlines: Emerald Green edition
- Empire Bloodlines: Limited edition
- Other related items: Card art, Apparel, and Accessories

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