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When it’s my opponent’s turn in chess, I don’t just look at the board. I look at my opponent’s eyes. His eyes betray him; through his eyes I can see everything. I can see which pieces he’s worried about, which pieces he might move next, and which pieces are going to fall into his general strategy that’s evolving over the course of the game. 

I adapt my strategy on the fly based on my opponent’s moves and changes of strategy. I don’t “pick my favorite strategy” and just pray that it will work out in the end. No, instead, I pick my strategy based on who my opponent is and how my opponent acts. 

Oftentimes, I feel as if many debaters forget that debate is a game like chess and a sport like a soccer or basketball. They forget that they need to change their strategies accordingly and based on their opponent’s moves. Today, we’ll be talking about the three reasons why and how you can adapt your strategies to take into mind the fact that debate is a game.

Adaptation #1: Debate Has NO Rules

One of our very own, Noah Howard, once said that “debate has no rules.” As a high school debater in my senior year, I took this saying to heart. Obviously, there are “rules” that exist in leagues such as you “can’t take evidence out of context or cut it unethically” and also common fundamental rules such as “you can’t punch your opponent in the face.” However, aside from these rules, there are no rules IN the debate round. In the debate round, you are a free debater. You get to decide which argumentation you should run and which strategy you should go for. 

I believe that this is one of the most important concepts for a debater to nail down and understand. If debate is a game, then ALL strategies are options. This means you shouldn’t be afraid to run topical counter plans, kritiks, or procedurals (such as this one)on your opponent. You shouldn’t be afraid to speak out against stock issues in favor of another weighing mechanism round (I wrote a great article on why and how you can do that last month).  

And don’t be afraid if you have a judge that disagrees with TCPs or K’s. In my senior year, I was successful with running and running advanced theory on judges who might have initially disagreed with my running of them. You can check out why and how you can do that over here

Case in point, these strategies are all tools in your toolbox and you should be ready to use any and all of them (more on the “tools in a toolbox” analogy under Adaptation #3). But what if you disagree on whether TCPs are valid or not? Well, it doesn’t matter, and Adaptation #2 tells us why. 

Adapation #2:  Remove Your Personal Opinion From Debate

Here’s the most controversial part of this article, and it’s completely your choice on whether you implement this in your rounds. If you choose not to, then don’t worry about it. However, I find that if you can effectively leave your personal opinions at the door when debating, then you’ll be able to do much better. 

But why should we leave our personal opinions at the door when we debate? Isn’t arguing for something that you don’t believe unethical and lying? I would argue not, and for three reasons.


First, it’s non-unique since we do it all the time. At each tournament, you have to go AFF three times and NEG three times. Chances are that you go NEG on your very own case and still have to come up with persuasive reasons against it. There are times where you might be NEG on a case that you absolutely agree with. In this instance, you once more must find persuasive reasons to vote against it. 

Second, debate is a game. Debate is a game with many different strategies and ways of going at arguments. There’s no “one right” position that is a factual truth. All hot-button debate issues have problems and strengths — good reasons to believe in them and bad reasons to believe in them. For instance, one could argue that the resolutionism position is structurally flawed because it removes the ability for the AFF to pick a single instance of the resolution and this destroys the basic principle of a single plan. However, you could say that the planism position is flawed because it ignores the most important part of debate — proving the resolution true or false. My point is that there are some really good arguments on both sides of literally any argument out there — not even just debate theory arguments. You shouldn’t be afraid of using convincing arguments of an issue you don’t personally agree with. 

Third, it’s educationally beneficial. This third point is really the impact of the first two I just mentioned. When you’re forced to come up with persuasive reasons why you shouldn’t do something you support, you’re forced to understand the other side. Gasp! “But why would you want to do that??” is probably what you’re wondering. Well, here’s the thing, if you understand the opposing side well, two things come about. (1) You can make your arguments against their position better since you now know what their strongest arguments are and their most fatal flaws. And (2) you lose all the common misconceptions and misinformation about the other side. Since you now have to know the other position quite well (in order for you to come up with effective and persuasive reasons for it), it’s much harder to believe lies about the position. If all Americans did this today, then our country of two main political parties wouldn’t be as divided as it currently is. 

There’s one more effective adaptation that you can employ in your rounds, and it has to do with being able to change your strategies on the fly. And what do ya know, but that brings us right to…

Adaptation #3: Adapt On The Fly

If debate is a game, then strategies are like tools in a toolbox. Just like your hammer can’t tighten a wrench and your driller can’t hit a nail home, some strategies don’t work everywhere or with all judges. 

This calls for great debater discretion when choosing what strategies to use. I would say that the strategy you pick should be more focused on your opponents, than your judge. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t tailor your strategy to the judge — because you certainly should. What I’m saying is that before you even think of your judge, you need to be thinking about your opponents. Let’s go back to my chess analogy. Every chess player has certain but unique weaknesses. Perhaps they play too risky with their heavier pieces? Or perhaps they’re a little too willing to give a few of their lower valuing pieces away. 

Certain but unique weaknesses are not unique to chess, they apply to all games and sports, including competitive debate. You should always try to be going into rounds where you know exactly what your opponent’s weaknesses are and try to craft your strategy around that. Perhaps their 1AR gets passionate about a certain DA that isn’t too critical for the NEG side? Well then spend 30 seconds bringing the DA up and move along, the 1AR is most likely going to fall for it and waste precious 1AR time completely wrecking the DA. You can come back in your 2NR and either straight up ignore or just concede the point and move on. 

“But how is it possible to know every single debater in the entire league?” is a question some of you national-qualifying and/or national open competitors might be asking. It sounds hard, but trust me, if you’re dedicated enough, it’s pretty easy. What I would do is have a mental or computer file on every single debate team that I had a good chance of hitting in my senior year. I would build this through my own experiences with the team, rounds I’ve watched them debate in, and information I receive from debate friends and acquaintances who have debated them. If you’re dedicated enough towards debate, or just super social, then you probably have a couple of contacts in each NCFCA region or Stoa state. After their rounds, talk to them and ask them about each team and then mentally try to think about how you can adapt your normal brief strategies to leverage the round in your favor. 

I get that this third adaptation doesn’t sound too important, but it’s probably one of the most important things you can do to go from a national-qualifying debater to a national-winning debater. Isaiah McPeak, our wonderful founder here at Ethos Debate, once said in a lecture that when you get to outrounds at a qualifier or national tournament, the competition is very close. Chances are that your opponents are just as excellent of a debate team as you are. Rounds are decided based on super small issues, and anything could affect the way the round goes. Knowing who your opponents are and adjusting your strategies to throw them off could absolutely determine a win or loss in outrounds. 

Concluding Thoughts: Debate de Game 

At the risk of sounding redundant, debate is a game just like chess or basketball. You need to think of strategies not as personally bound opinions that you can only use if you personally agree with, but as tools in a toolbox to be used when more effective. Only take out your hammer when you need to bring a nail home, not when you need to put a screw in. While the hammer might work for the screw, a driller would be far more effective in doing the job. 

What are your thoughts on treating debate like a game? Perhaps you do this already? Or maybe you’re interested in doing so in future rounds? Maybe you’re flat out against doing so? Regardless of how you feel, we’d love to get to know your thoughts a bit better. Feel absolutely free to scroll down and leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.


Remember, debate is a game! And the game has no rules (aside from abusing evidence and punching your opponent in the face), so go wild in terms of what arguments you run (even if you personally disagree with some of them). 

About Me

Justin is a three-year alumnus of NCFCA and an honors student at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Currently a junior, he hopes to receive his degree in computer science with a specification of cyber security as well as minors in criminal justice and math. Justin has plans to achieve his master’s and PhD in computer science and specifically cyber security. In his senior year of high school debate, Justin went from never competing in an outround to averaging semis or quarters at every national open, including a 4th place at nationals, as well as averaging finals at regional tournaments. His philosophy in debate is that there are no rules. Providing one is ethical, the most persuasive argument flies. At the end of the day, Justin argues you should honor God & have fun! Debate is not all about winning, it’s about the skills you foster. 

You can learn more about Justin by reading his bio, and you can book coaching with him over here. 

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