The “Three-Deck Triathlon” — A Multi-Deck Comparison Spread

As I accumulate more decks in a similar style (for example, Thoth and RWS clones, Tarot de Marseille variants, pagan-themed decks, and so forth), I encounter the need to decide which deck of the type is the most effective for everyday use, and which is the most worthy to become a mainstay in my practice. (I resist the popular phrase “go-to deck” in the same way I shy away from overused terms like “intuitive,” “resonate” and “spot-on.”) Of course, simply using them in a lot of readings will always be the best way to asses their potency, but I like creative short-cuts that save time and effort and I’m constantly seeking new ways to evaluate the cards. Deck-comparison spreads of the “deck interview” variety represent an angle I haven’t fully explored yet. I presently have a single-deck “personality profile” version and a two-deck comparative layout, but nothing for three or more decks.

A triathlon is a sporting event in which athletes compete in a three-phase long-distance race, a feat of endurance performed consecutively without rest between segments. The triathlon can take on a number of different forms, but one of the most common involves swimming, bicycling and running. The “ironman triathlon,” now a generic description derived from the namesake event that was first held in Hawaii in 1978, is one of the most famous.

I fancied that a three-deck (or greater) spread including three comparative positions in each chain of cards with a fourth overall “roll-up” position built on the elemental attributes most closely associated with each mini-event of a triathlon would be a fun way to attack the question. I chose Water/Charisma and its key properties to stand in for “swimming,” Air/Clarity for “bicycling” and Fire/Intensity for “running,” with Earth/Overall Utility representing the “finish line” as a separate quintessence card for each chain. By “anthropomorphizing” the card attributes and qualities in this way, they will ideally invoke those characteristics in the reader who uses them.

The idea is that the positions containing cards that are most in tune with the nature of the element will be the “winners” in that category, placing the deck they represent at the head of the class. The deck with the most winners will be the superior choice for my purpose. The criteria would be not only shared elemental alignment but also characteristics like number meaning and traditional card interpretation (good, bad or neutral). The possibility of a tie exists, but I haven’t thought of a way to do a “run-off” yet — maybe it will have to be “intuition” after all (urk!) — but I’ll come up with one; as always, this spread is a work-in-progress that will evolve as I work with it, so expect tweaks.

Copyright 2020. Parsifal’s Wheel Tarot & Astrology

Here is an example reading. It is my first use of the spread, so I will be learning as I go along. I don’t use reversals in deck interview readings. Note that, although I don’t think tarot decks have “personalities,” speaking of them as if they do makes for an engaging way to talk about them. In practice, the characteristics I ascribe to the cards are those that they should inspire in the reader using them. I have a personal approach to calculating the quintessence that may not square with the way my readers learned it; if you’re curious, you can visit my previous post on the subject.

I have three of Ciro Marchetti’s colorful tarot decks that, as CGI creations, occupy a special niche in my collection. I’ve used them a number of times each and have established preferences, so I figured they would present a good opportunity to test this spread. In the photo, the Tarot of Dreams is in the left-hand column, the Gilded Tarot is in the middle and the Legacy of the Divine is at the far right.

Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

In the Water/Charisma row, the cards are the Magician, the 9 of Wands and the Lovers; in the Swords/Clarity row, the cards are Ace of Wands, the Knight of Pentacles and the 10 of Wands; in the Fire/Intensity row, the cards are the Page of Cups, the 10 of Cups and Death; in the Earth/Overall Utility row, the quintessence cards are Death, the Lovers and the Hermit.

The most immediately noticeable thing about this array is that only one of the twelve cards, the Hermit in the Earth row, is perfectly matched elementally to its position. There are a few sympathetic alignments but almost no direct hits. The impression I get is that these decks aren’t entirely amenable to being scrutinized in this way. Either that or they’re just being contrary.

In the Water row, the airy Magician, as something of a chameleon befitting its connection to Mercury, is the most well-placed of the three. The 9 of Wands — even though as a Nine it has some affinity for lunar emotional empathy — brings the low spark of Fire into the realm of Water, which swamps it. The Lovers I don’t consider a “romance” card, preferring its association to Air (the Gemini correspondence and the fact its assigned Hebrew letter means “sword”). The Tarot of Dreams comes out on top in this contest.

In the Air row, the two fiery Wands cards are elementally favored, while the Knight of Pentacles is out-of-sorts. The Ace of Wands and the 10 of Wands are the “alpha and omega” of Fire, with the former freshly minted and the latter nearing the weary end of its journey. The Ace has the energy to make the most of its environment, and comes across as the most effective in this element. The nod again goes to the Tarot of Dreams.

In the Fire row, all of the cards are associated with Water, giving the sense that none of them really wants to run the “foot-race.” This Page of Cups looks thoroughly dissipated, as if he just pulled an “all-nighter” at a college frat party. The 10 of Cups is too comfortably settled to work up much enthusiasm for a 26-mile slog, and Death is above (and perhaps, if you know your Swinburn, below) needing to demonstrate its endurance. If I had to pick a winner here, it would be Death from the Legacy of the Divine; to steal and mangle a quote from The Big Lebowski, “Death abides.”

In the Earth row, the Hermit, as an expression of earthy Virgo, is well-situated but not very demonstrative about its role. The Water card Death is elementally fortunate here, and has more definite — or at least more observable — views about the transformative efficacy of the tarot. The Hermit has wisdom, but Death is much more purposeful. The Air card Lovers is disadvantaged in Earth and doesn’t make much of a showing. The advantage once again goes to the Tarot of Dreams.

With three “winners,” the Tarot of Dreams offers the superior choice in this comparison. In my practice, I’ve found that the Tarot of Dreams and the Gilded Tarot are a toss-up for reading effectiveness, with the latter a little more user-friendly due to its smaller size and more vivid color palette. The more artistically accomplished Legacy of the Divine deck never made much of an impression on me. The details of the reading create a fairly accurate picture of my experience with these decks, and tell me that I should spend some more time with the Tarot of Dreams.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at

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