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In the first round of a draft, I usually just pick the best card from every pack. After that I look at what I've picked, try to pick good on-color card in the second pack, and pick whatever my deck needs in the last round.

I've noticed in some of the commentated drafts I've watched online that the players often establish their colors by the fifth pick and then avoid picking anything off-color unless its a ridiculous bomb. For example, if you open something like a Sorin or Garruk on the third pack, you should probably pick it whether its on color of off-color unless there's some amazing uncommon that would work perfectly with the cards you've picked so far. Aside from monetary reasons, its often worth splashing just for that one card, and at the very least you deprive some one else of an ideal bomb. Otherwise they remain faithfully on color no matter what passes by.

When should I determine what colors I'm playing in an MTG draft? Should I try to start staying only on color as early as the middle of the first pack, or what until the beginning or even middle of the second pack? If I pick early I get a wider variety of card in my color, but I may end up not playing another color/deck that could be far better due to my narrow-mindedness. How can I establish a successful balance between these two?

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If you're getting "ridiculous bombs" after the 5th pick you are a luckier Magic player than I! –  thesunneversets Apr 27 '12 at 9:31
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@thesunneversets Whoops, I meant opening one at the beginning of a pack, not actually getting it on any pick after 2nd. The people I play with are too rude and inconsiderate to pass me anything good past pick 4... –  Gordon Gustafson Apr 27 '12 at 21:11
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2 Answers 2

I think the question you should be asking is not "when to choose what colours I will play", but rather "when to stop choosing what colours I will play"?

Magic, and especially Magic draft, is a game that favours the adaptable. When you make a first pick of a bomb in one colour, that does not commit you to playing that colour, but it suggests that you should weight all your subsequent picks accordingly. If after the first two picks, your colour has completely dried up, then you need to be adaptable enough to let go of that colour.

This is not to say that, on the 10th pick of pack 3, you should still be open to moving into a new colour! Hopefully your colours and the basic nature of your deck (aggro/control/mill/whatever) will be more or less settled long before then. So how do you determine when to start taking cards that fit into your deck (as you currently envision it), as opposed to more powerful picks?

Unfortunately there is no quick and easy formula. But I would say it's when you can actually visualise the deck you're going to play. Let's say your first two picks are white bombs: lucky for you, but you still can't visualise a deck on the back of two cards! Let's say white dries up thereafter. Now you have to visualise a new deck in the colour that you're actually being passed. Can you visualise it with a white splash? You should certainly be trying, but not so hard that you end up shoehorning in cards that don't actually fit due to your attachment issues.

At some point you will have double figures of cards that you can see working and playing well in the same deck together. It's at about this point that I would suggest that you should be committing. With half a deck already now you'll need to consider optimising your curve and filling any gaps in your deck (too few creatures for instance).

I'm always wary of people who stubbornly try to force a deck that they've visualised before they have a good number of the cards for it. Sometimes it can really pay off, but passing early bombs in pursuit of a deck that may or may not come, well, that's the drafting equivalent of refusing to mulligan a no-land-hand in the hope that all of your draws will be perfect, isn't it?

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The real way to force a deck is not in pre-game but in pack 1, pick 1. Dearly Departed is a decent bomb and all, but it's not as powerful as being able to pass your opponent a pack with zero black cards and zero red cards. –  Alex P Apr 30 '12 at 19:59
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The key to Limited, like Constructed, is to build a deck with a gameplan. Your colors are a part of that, but not the totality of it: any given color can support multiple strategies, and focusing your deck around a particular strategy -- e.g. fast damage, 2-for-1 card advantage, evasive beatdown, just stalling long enough to drop your bomb, &c. -- is generally more successful than just drafting a two-color "good stuff" deck with some bombs.

When you're drafting, there's a bit of tension between going with the flow and controlling it. Every card you receive tells you more about what you're likely to see later, but every card you pass also directly influences what you'll receive later.

Ideally, you want to establish your plan quickly so that you can send coherent signals to the other players. The big reward for this is when they stay out of your space and you scoop up all the good cards for your archetype from around the table. However, you can't close yourself off to what the other players are doing, because other players' choice of colors and archetypes may conflict with yours.

Many draft strategy articles recommend choosing your first color immediately, within something like the first three cards, and then waiting until around your second pack to lock in your second. The subtext is that the best way to signal consistently is to start as early as possible, but leaving your second color choice for later makes it easy to adapt to what's open. This is a quick and easy rule of thumb, but it doesn't really capture all the nuances of drafting your deck. In particular, just because you have a steady stream of cards in a specific color doesn't mean they'll all work together nicely -- if you get stuck with a bunch of Skaab and midrange flyers in triple-Innistrad draft, for instance, you may be stuck unable to actually cast your big beefy Zombies until the late game because your graveyard is too empty.

My usual goal in draft is to work out a specific plan as quickly as possible so that I can pick up critical enablers for it, and just let the colors fall into place based on availability of cards that support my archetype. Sometimes this means shifting colors late in the game when I see that cards that match my deck are moving my way -- even if the color they're in is otherwise pretty picked-over.

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I completely agree with the needing to be able to switch color/archetype late in the game. There was one 4-player draft I did where I was doing fairly well with black-blue control, but soon realized that NOBODY else was picking the red burn card. I think I picked nothing but red cards from the middle of pack 2 to the end despite my urge to avoid switching colors that late, threw in some black and a splash of blue, and did pretty well since I had such a consistent archtype. :) –  Gordon Gustafson Apr 27 '12 at 21:18
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