uccessfully navigating your way through a booster draft can be difficult. You need to start your journey off right, and you need to be prepared to avoid (or at the very least be aware of) the many hazards that will inevitably present themselves to you along the way. If all goes completely according to plan, you will be able to build a fantastic deck around your first few picks. But if you go down a road that leads you toward a dead end or a huge traffic jam, you're going to need to be able to make a turn that will take you back on the path toward a good deck.
Batterhorn | Art by Dave Kendall
The fact that there are only five color combinations that people draft with any degree of regularity in Return to Ravnica makes the road less traveled very appealing. If you're the only player in a guild at a table, you're probably going to end up with a very good deck. However, if you end up in the same guild as the player to your right, and there's yet another player at your table drafting the exact two-color combination that you're in, you're going to be in trouble.
Unless you're going out of your way to draft a specific type of deck, you want to spend your earliest picks taking the best card out of every pack. This is commonly referred to as "forcing" a deck or archetype because the drafter will take cards for the type of deck he or she wants to draft with minimal regard for the other cards in the pack. If you are forcing a specific type of deck, such as Rakdos Beatdown, you will have a significantly easier time making most of your decisions because you will be able to ignore all of the green, white, and blue cards in your packs.
If the best card in your first pack is a single-colored card like Stab Wound, Street Spasm, or Deadbridge Goliath, your choice should be pretty easy.
However, if the most powerful card is a multicolored card like Auger Spree; New Prahv Guildmage; or Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord, you may end up with a tough decision on your hands, as you will have to choose between taking a slightly less powerful single-colored card and a more powerful gold option.
If the best multicolored card in the pack is significantly stronger than anything else, you should take it (at least unless you have a very strong bias against that color combination—in which case passing it and nudging the player to your left into a guild you have no interest in drafting can be a very good thing). Even if you don't end up playing white-blue, the potential upside that a New Prahv Guildmage offers relative to that of a good card like a Gore-House Chainwalker makes the pick very worthwhile.
If the multicolored card is only a little bit more powerful (or arguably less powerful) than the best single-colored card in the pack, such as Dramatic Rescue versus Azorius Arrester, I would definitely recommend going with the single-colored option.
Picks Two Through Six
Being able to properly determine when you should remain flexible and when it's time to commit is a crucial (and extremely difficult) skill. Even the best, most experienced players in the world have trouble consistently making the right choice.
Generally, I want to commit to a color combination when I make my fourth or fifth pick. Sure, if I first-picked a bomb like Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius and then got passed a Frostburn Weird followed by a Street Spasm, or I started with an Annihilating Fire and then an Auger Spree followed by a Hellhole Flailer, that might compel me to make my decision a bit earlier. But barring an exceptionally good set of cards in the correct colors coming my way, I'm perfectly willing to abandon my first two picks if it seems like I'm getting cut off in that color/guild.
Consequently, I will take the best card out of each pack (with little regard for what colors it's in) through my first three picks.
So even if I first-picked a Detention Sphere, if I get passed a pack with a Hussar Patrol (which is decent, but not great), and a good "off-colored" red card like Splatter Thug or Bloodfray Giant, I'll almost always take the red card.
Don't be That Player
Have you ever been frustrated by the fact that you passed the player to your left "the best Rakdos deck" but he or she instead went into Azorius right behind you for no discernible reason? Well, if you're afraid of throwing away your first picks you run the very real risk of becoming That Player (and costing yourself some very good decks in the process).
Sure, there's the very real possibility that I will ultimately go Azorius and that Bloodfray Giant will have been a "wasted pick." But I'm not willing to commit myself to a guild just because I first-picked a good gold card. If you are willing to do that, you completely inhibit your ability to actually participate in the draft and instead make yourself a servant of whatever the best card in your first pack happened to have been.
Unfortunately, you can't wait indefinitely, or else it'll be very unlikely you'll have enough cards to build a two-color deck, so by the time you get to picks four and five, you should (usually) be ready to make a decision.
If you were passed a Call of the Conclave second pick, and the best card in your fourth pack is a good Selesnya card, you should feel comfortable moving in (even if that means abandoning your first pick).
Even if you first-pick a Detention Sphere then second-pick a Hussar Patrol, if you grab a Frostburn Weird, a Teleportal, and a Pursuit of Flight with picks three, four, and five, you should be ready to move directly into Izzet (possibly splashing the Detention Sphere).
Picks Seven Through Fourteen
By this point, you've ideally already picked out a color(s). If you're solidly in two colors by this point, you can continue taking the best card in those colors out of each pack.
While you probably won't have that many tough choices this late in the first pack, you should begin paying attention to your curve. If you already have three four-mana creatures, then you should probably be looking to take two- and three-mana spells even if they're slightly less powerful than the more expensive cards they're sitting next to.
However, if you've only committed to one color and you're waiting to see how the beginning of pack two goes before you establish yourself in a guild, you should continue to take cards in your primary color whenever possible. If you're solidly in red and you have the opportunity to take a exceptionally strong (relative to the other cards in the pack) Izzet or Rakdos card, by all means, grab it.
But if you're choosing between a decent red card and a slightly better black card, you should probably stick with the card in your main color.
Pack Two: Picks One Through Three
If you're already firmly in a guild and there aren't any extremely powerful cards that might tempt you to switch, you should stay the course.
If there's an overwhelmingly powerful card that you might want to splash (like a Cyclonic Rift), then by all means take that. But barring that, you should be looking to take cards that will help your deck function the way you want it to.
So if you're drafting a Selesnya populate deck, make it a point to take cards like Centaur's Herald that will actually get your populate chain started. And if you're drafting an aggressive Rakdos deck, you should continue to prioritize cheap creatures and removal spells.
However, if you've only firmly committed to one color, now is a great time to look for reasons to move into a guild.
Top-notch cards in prospective second colors, like Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage or Lyev Skyknight, should generally get the nod over decent cards in your main color, like Sunspire Griffin. But barring a particularly appealing option in a second color, you should continue to stay open for as long as possible (and remember, even if you do take that Lyev Skyknight, you don't have to play blue!).
Pack Two: Picks Four Through Fourteen
You want to use these picks to make sure your deck is well situated going into pack three. Fill out any holes in your curve that you can (even if that means giving up on a little bit of raw power). Grab a finisher or two (which can be anything from Blustersquall to Horncaller's Chant depending on your situation). Take some combat tricks like Giant Growth to ensure you're doing things other than just playing creatures.
And continue grabbing key cards that will allow your deck to actually function as intended (Hussar Patrol in slower white-blue decks, Rootborn Defenses in populate decks, Traitorous Instinct in aggressive red decks, etc.).
The third pack is when normal "pick orders," or lists of priorities, should be discarded and replaced by whatever needs you have.
The third pack is your last chance to finish your deck. If there are any glaring holes in your deck at this point, you need to patch them up.
If you don't have enough two-mana creatures, you're going to need to prioritize even Tavern Swindlers over "good" expensive cards.
If your deck doesn't have a way to break through should the game drag out, cards like Chemister's Trick, Azorius Justiciar, and even Zanikev Locust should shoot up in value for you since you'll need them to actually close out games.
When you get to the third pack, you can't be concerned about how good the cards you're passing are. You just need to do what you can to ensure that your deck actually has what it takes to win.