In my own practice, I consider any spread of five cards or fewer to be “small.” I find anything in that range to be of little use in complex scenarios with numerous variables that often have their most telling influence from behind-the-scenes. A small layout leaves a lot unsaid “between the lines” (that is, in the “white space” between the cards) and I’d rather not ponder what that might be when there is almost certainly a specific card (or several) for it waiting to be pulled. I call this contingency the “intuitive guesswork” solution and prefer to use it sparingly and judiciously, not as my normal approach to reading, which is more knowledge-and-experience based and cerebral. But small spreads do have a place in more straightforward situations and many people use them exclusively, so I’m going to attempt to explain my understanding of their value. I’ll see if I can find something new to say about them.
One Card: This is the typical beginner’s primer and “daily draw” card. I seldom use single cards for the latter because they depict a static condition that I find useful only for showing the “tone” rather than the “substance” of the upcoming day; otherwise, they can be effective for quick yes-or-no answers if you have an established system of “yes,” “no” and “maybe” cards. As I posted a couple of days ago, I believe there are better ways to learn the card meanings.
Two Cards: These spreads are good for “either/or” situations where two paths are available and only one can be pursued. These are similar to “yes-or-no” spreads but might better be called “stop-or-go” spreads. I usually expand the initial two with amplifying cards, in which case they can give an unequivocal “Should I stay or should I go?” answer with justification. Because two cards can set up a cooperative or confrontational dynamic, they can be worthwhile to apply to interpersonal matters, but don’t expect much in the way of “whys-and-wherefores” unless you “inuit” them.
Three Cards: There are several advantages to these: 1) they work in the Hegelian sense of “thesis/antithesis/synthesis,” which is more usefully described as “action/reaction/resolution;” 2) as an odd-numbered array, they have a middle card that can be treated as the “focus” of the reading, with the flanking cards as modifiers; 3) they customarily show a “timeline” flowing from left-to-right that is read as “past-present-future;” 4) they accommodate “Essential Dignities,” in which the middle card is either strengthened or weakened by the elemental “friendliness” of the two adjacent cards; 5) they are quick and easy to throw and read, and you don’t need a lot of tabletop “real estate,” making them ideal for rapid-turnover public readings. These features produce a full range of options that can lend credibility in slightly more involved contexts; the downside is that there isn’t much interpretive “meat” there to drive a compelling narrative. (Of course, we can always just make stuff up (i.e. “free-associate”) from the pictures, but you didn’t hear that from me.)
Four Cards: I like these for any situation involving a logical division into four segments, like some sporting events, which I usually approach as a “2×4” proposition with one 4-card row for each team, thus enabling comparison. They can also provide an additional dimension to a three-card draw in which the fourth card is viewed as the long-range consequences of the events described by the “future” card. Finally, they are perfect when working with four sub-packs based on suit or element, in which case each stack represents a topical “pool” from which a single card can be randomly chosen to build the spread. For example, the Wands pool could relate to initiative, enterprise, career and, where applicable, “business;” the Cups pool to relationships, emotions and romance; the Swords pool to decisions, disagreements and difficulties; the Pentacles pool to all practical matters such as money and its acquisition (aka daily “work”), property, finance, etc.
Five Cards: As another odd-numbered sequence, they offer a middle “focus” card with a more elaborate combination of “modifiers,” some of which will be more influential than others based on a variety of factors: 1) “dignity” of various kinds, such as a preponderance of one denomination of card over the rest by suit, number, element or rank; 2) a more fully-realized story-line with the likelihood of “plot twists;” 3) more “talking points” for the reader and querent to consider; 4) the opportunity for a more dramatic acceleration or deceleration of events over a longer period of time, often showing an “up-and-down” movement that suggests conflicts that must be resolved before a satisfactory conclusion can be reached. This is where the value of more cards begins to reveal itself to the professional reader’s story-telling instincts, and where we also have to start really working for our fee.
When I create spreads, I usually opt for five cards or more for the reasons given above. If I go with fewer cards, I like to devise creative ways to select them, such as “pointer” cards that single out certain “focus” cards from a larger array. The selection process may be more involved, but the reading is identical to any similar small spread, with the same benefits and limitations.