“When do you cement yourself into a certain strategy?”
It’s an interesting question, but a hard one to answer since it’s highly dependent on the format. On top of that, each draft is unique, and blanket rules aren’t that useful in Magic.
In general, you should make each pick with a degree of flexibility, and even after locking in colors you should be willing to consider a shift in archetype as late as pack three. However, some drafts are successful by finding a focused strategy in the first few picks while others are better served staying flexible, and that got me thinking about why.
While individual drafts have their own unique power levels depending on print runs and what was opened, some formats are naturally more powerful than others. In underpowered or “shallow” formats with a high variance between the top and low end, the emphasis is on getting enough playables. Every draft is kind of like facing a bad Sealed pool and saying “OK, what can I do with this?” Avacyn Restored was a good example of a format like that, where everyone’s 18-23 cards were vaguely unplayable and the real trick was making them do something, making them look good in the context of the rest of the deck. Cards that could turn an awful card into a good one, like Homicidal Seclusion or Stonewright, overperformed.
In older formats, Fireball was so above the curve in power that people would always take it, and if they weren’t red then they’d throw it in their deck anyway as a splash on an 8-7-2 or 7-7-3 mana base. Fireball is still a great card, but it’s no longer unpassable, and the average card quality has improved to the point where the consistency of your deck matters more and splashing without fixers is much worse. The better your opponent and the better their deck, the more likely they are to punish a stumble, and the less time your mana has to fix itself.
In formats with a higher overall power level, or “deep” formats, you can get away with picking more linear cards early on, and worry less about getting enough playables. Cube is the ultimate of these formats. There’ll still be cards that stand out as bombs within individual Cubes, but for the most part all the cards are good.
In Cube, I have no problem pack-1-pick-1’ing a color-intensive card like Geralf’s Messenger because it’s not going to trap me. In the first four picks or so, I’m going to figure out if black is open and then I’ll either have one of the best 3-drops or I’ll move on with my life—the loss of an individual pick or three is not a big deal, and the emphasis should be on building a coherent deck.
The best-case scenario is that whatever card you pack-1-pick-1 is insane and that color is open and you build a sweet deck with no filler. The second-best case is that that color isn’t open, but you realize it quick-like and switch into colors that are, building a great deck anyway and running the table. The third option is much worse, and it involves getting wedded to your first pick and train-wrecking while you force a strategy that just wasn’t available.
In general, staying open early on will give you more information when you pull the trigger on what archetype you want to be, and flexible cards like Lightning Bolt or Doom Blade will tend to be better picks. Still, I’ve come to appreciate taking archetype-specific cards early. Not only do they give me direction from the get-go and inform my draft, they also keep me from getting wedded to my early picks, as it’s obvious to see if something isn’t open. It’s not as hard to abandon a Zurgo Bellstriker as it is a Roast. It’s possible this is me playing around my own weaknesses as a player, and not applicable to everyone.
Signals are more than just colors, they’re also archetype-specific. You can have two white drafters cooperatively draft next to each other if one of them is drafting white control and the other one is drafting WW because the WW player needs to spend picks filling out the early part of his curve with aggressive threats—something the control player doesn’t value.
The size of the draft isn’t talked about much because for the most part everyone plays 8-mans, but when it comes up it certainly matters.
Sometimes, a shop overbooks a draft and you’ll end up with something strange like 10 people to a table. In those situations, more cards are being opened and the decks gain in power, bringing things closer to Cube where it matters less what colors you’re in so much as what you’re doing with those colors (deck coherence).
As you lower the number of players, you lower the number of cards opened and with it the number of playables for each individual strategy. The fewer the players, the better it becomes to take the best cards regardless of color and cobble together some 4- or 5-color abomination. After you scoop up the premium bombs, removal, and value cards you can focus the rest of your picks on fixing while everyone else scrambles to get enough playables. With fewer cards, the decks get worse, which means games go longer and your mana will have more time to fix itself. On top of that, smaller drafts increase the effectiveness of hating cards from your neighbors. If you’re 4v4’ing, hating a card impacts 1/4 or 25% of your opponent’s decks and thus possible wins. If you’re 2v2’ing, it hits a full 50%.