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You just had a great affirmative round, and now as negative, you are waiting for the affirmative to give their case, for which you and your partner are well prepared. However, halfway through his introduction, a grave realization sets in: you have no idea what he’s talking about; it’s not the case you were expecting. You and your partner’s eyes get wide, and a mixture of panic and dread sets in. “What do we do?” you silently ask each other. You have no evidence on this case. Of course, you are flowing the 1AC, but the next column on your flowsheet is ominously bare. The affirmative speaker concludes, and your prep time begins… and ticks away, as you again ask each other, “what do we do?”

Being caught unprepared for a case is really stressful, as I know from experience. And no matter how much one may research cases, if he debates enough, he is bound to run into squirrel/surprise cases. Yet, despite the significance and possibility of this event, I have found that most new—and even some intermediate—debaters simply aren’t sufficiently advised on how to handle these surprises, if at all. Perhaps debaters simply disregard the threat until it’s too late, or perhaps coaches/debaters don’t think there is an effective approach. However, I can assure you that there are methods and strategies which can significantly improve your encounters, and it is worth the time to start learning and practicing them. This article will detail some of the approaches that served its author well, although I will note that there are other strategies not detailed here.

My 5 recommendations:

1) Stay calm!

This step might seem to be cliche when you aren’t in the situation, but it nonetheless needs to be stressed. Yes, there may be some reasons to worry about being caught without evidence and other case preparation… but don’t. When you are frantically looking around for what to do, you don’t think through the problem at hand as well, and are therefore more likely to miss important details and poorly follow the next steps/approaches. Now, I know some might still be thinking, “But how can I stay calm? If we get caught unprepared, we’re in huge trouble!” I understand this assumption, but actually, this article will show you that as long as you’ve done an adequate job researching (i.e. you haven’t ignored good cases) and you follow strategies like those detailed here, you actually might be better off in these scenarios than against an average case which you have prepared for. The reason “why” underpins many of the methods/strategies suggested here: unless you’ve just done a poor job researching, there is usually some reason (flaw) why this case wasn’t popular. The following strategies/approaches are designed to help you discover that critical flaw.

2) Checklist

Note: for this article I used a 5 stock issue model which divides “significance” into seriousness of harms/advantages (which I still call “Significance”) and disadvantages (which I refer to as “net advantages”). I now consider this view outdated, but it is still helpful to use the following points as a “checklist.”

Because you are attacking the case with the assumption that some aspect of it is flawed, you want to make sure you approach it from every argumentative angle. Thus, your first approach to any surprise case should be to make a mental (or even physical) checklist of all the stock issues, or any method you find helpful to evaluate debate cases: root cause analysis, the 5 whys, or whatever method you find helpful and use it to critically evaluate the case. This will help you methodically attack the case from all angles. Basically, you just question the case on the rubrics of your evaluation process. I’ll be doing it through the stock issues as that’s what I find most valuable. To do this, it is usually very important to also utilize the next practice (hammering on evidence), but this isn’t always necessary.

  • Starting with topicality, ask yourself, “Is this case definitely topical? Can I see any way that it may not be? Is this case only effects- or extra-topical?” If you have any doubts as to the case’s topicality, then try to pursue that line of thought. Is it a definitional or application issue? Etc. If you come to a dead end, or if you are slowing down, either temporarily move on or disregard the issue altogether.
  • The next is inherency: ask yourself, “Did they clearly show that the status quo is different from their plan?” Sometimes a team may offer inherency points which actually don’t completely line up with their plan. For example, if the case is repeal China 123 Agreement (civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement), a team could read the inherency point “We don’t sanction China,” and give the plan “Sanction the entities [i.e. companies] involved in proliferation.” The only problem is that although it is true we don’t sanction China, as in the entire country/government, we already do sanction various companies. As I discuss later, you wouldn’t even have to have evidence on this point because the burden of proof lies on the affirmative (since they made the argument/claim), although you would have to be careful in how you say this (but if it seems the judge thinks you are nitpicking, feel free to give that 123 case as an example of why “nitpicking” can be important).
  • Significance: How serious is the problem? Affirmatives typically don’t base their cases around things which obviously aren’t harmful; what tends to be an issue is that the harms are so comparatively insignificant in the context of government policy. For example, if a plan saves a few hundred million dollars, there might be legitimate harm. However, you could ultimately beat the case by using the “substantially” topicality press which says that plans which bring in less than roughly $500M in (annual) net benefits should be considered untopical, because the government spends around $7M per minute, and a debate round is typically between 70–80 minutes long. 7*75= >$500M. If their case provides less benefits than this, then the case, you argue, shouldn’t be topical. (I have heavily oversimplified the argument here; the full version includes more detailed and broad justifications, including educational and fairness impacts)
  • Solvency. This one is straightforward: do they solve the harms they claim? Particularly, do they have evidence that their plan will solve? It is a very common practice to just extrapolate from evidence about solvency, or to piece various points together, but as I emphasize in the next section, heavily scrutinize this. (Note: Be careful not to completely rely on insolvency for just some of the affirmative’s harms, if they have others; you need to take out all of their solvency points to completely rely on solvency.)
  • Net advantages (AKA disadvantages, including counterplans). This one is typically more tricky, because these arguments tend to require actual support (e.g. evidence, reasoning), whereas most other stock issues points simply involve poking holes in the affirmative’s arguments. Nonetheless, if none of the previous stock issues work, ask yourself: “What kind of problems could arise from this plan?” In some cases, you may even ask “Is their plan only topical because it takes a roundabout/inefficient way to deal with the problem—so roundabout that a non-topical alternative (counterplan) would be more efficient?”

Ultimately, I found this to be an effective framework/basis for your other approaches (i.e. your other strategies/approaches should work through this structure), because it helps you methodically analyze a case which most likely has some hidden flaw in some aspect.

3) Hammer on evidence: “Burden of Proof”

Many debaters have heard (and used) the term “Burden of proof,” though it isn’t always understood or used well. It can be a pain to deal with on affirmative, but in this situation, the phrase will be your best friend, so long as you use it properly. The reason again goes back to our assumption: if you haven’t heard of this case, it’s probably because it’s missing support or attention in the field’s literature. In other words, probably few to no experts have written on this, let alone directly advocated this. Thus, the affirmative’s evidence can tend to be a stitchwork of extrapolation or even total assumption. Your goal is to expose this, particularly through the stock issue checklist. Some important aspects of this are:

  • Broadly defining burden of proof

You probably shouldn’t throw this term around without at least briefly setting a standard for what is/isn’t acceptable. Out of a round, I would define burden of proof as “All arguments/assertions (i.e. not necessarily responses, unless those responses assert fact) must have some form of support which doesn’t always have to be evidence, although data/facts which aren’t part of common knowledge must be based on credible evidence and more complicated analyses (such as most solvency points) must also be supported directly by reliable evidence.” But in short (i.e. in rounds), I say that anything which isn’t fairly obvious should probably have evidence, or at least very clear and/or strong reasoning support. To more specifically define burden of proof, I use some of the following points:

  • Key taglines/impacts must be clearly supported

Any tagline or impact which claims to be based off of evidence should be directly affirmed by the evidence (although sometimes basic math is okay). This may sound like obvious advice outside of a round, but I actually once faced a case where the key argument was “China is violating the law.” To support this, the affirmative read evidence which seemed to suggest the tagline (because the terminology was technical/vague), but never actually said “China is violating the law” (which, we found out later, was because it wasn’t). Our side fumbled over what the standard for burden of proof should be, so that by the time I said this, we had already lost our credibility.

  • Credibility/Recency

Sure, an affirmative might be able to find a piece of evidence which supports what they are saying, but unless that evidence is really credible, that evidence should not be given much more weight than if the statement were made by the debaters. Thus, if some random journalist says “This program would save millions of lives,” but the journalist doesn’t explicitly say how/why they came to that conclusion, then the solvency should not be accepted. Surprise cases thrive on stitching ideas together with uncredible statements, so look for these weak links.

  • Burden basing

This handy CX technique is not only useful for dealing with surprise cases, but it is especially helpful when dealing with questionable inherency issues. Essentially, if you think they assumed a claim (such as “Inherency: We aren’t dealing with this issue”), then ask in CX, “So you are assuming/claiming that __________, correct?” (They respond) “So to support this argument, did you provide proof?” Now, the importance of this may not seem to be clear at first. However, I can tell you from experience that especially with issues of assumed inherency, if you don’t make it clear you are responding to their argument, then it will seem like you are constructing an argument, in which case the burden of proof would fall on you. For example, in one of my rounds, a major part of the affirmative’s plan was “Begin negotiations on food safety with China.” The problem was that they didn’t actually explicitly argue that we weren’t already doing so (and I happened to know we were, based on evidence which I didn’t have). I tried to argue that we were already negotiating, but this point was crushed because I had let them shift the burden of proof onto me when I couldn’t provide evidence.

In short, burden basing in CX will help you avoid these situations by exposing gaps in the affirmative’s case and correctly locating the burden of proof (on the affirmative).

4) Teamwork and prep time

Some of the following recommendations could be considered slightly more “advanced”: they aren’t really complicated, but if you aren’t used to the steps given so far, then this could be an inefficient use of your focus. Still, I would recommend getting comfortable with these suggestions, because they are helpful. Also, I can’t give one-size-fits-all recommendations, because what works best will depend on how you and your partner work together, but what I suggest is mostly generalized advice.

  • Consider labor/argument divisions

I would not suggest completely dividing up labor, so that there is no duplication; some redundancy is probably wise, such as with the stock issue checklist. However, I would recommend making a plan with your partner as to what you will do, and who would be responsible for what. For example, I recommend dividing up flowing duties: I preferred having the 2N legibly flow the case in detail (then giving his flow to the 1N for their speech), while the 1N focuses on preparing arguments and planning (e.g. goes through the checklist; writes CX questions). You might prefer the opposite, but either approach I believe is better than the natural, “each person just flows and thinks/prepare the same amount.” Still, there are so many different possible strategies here that I can’t go through all of them, let alone weigh them. Thus, you should consider this with your partner (or even have a club activity on it).

  • Don’t under-communicate; don’t over-communicate

Communicate a good bit in prep time, but during affirmative speeches, make sure you are listening carefully to the arguments. Thus, try to limit communications during speeches to important points and/or via notes. Again, you need to determine what works for you and your partner.

  • Prep time

You might be surprised at how often I see teams poorly utilize their prep time, especially in these scenarios. If you are caught unprepared, you will want to use much more prep time for your first speech than usual (I might say ~2:30). Then perhaps use only some (~1:00) for the 2NC, preferably none for the 1NR, and then the rest for the 2NR. Consider what works best for you.

5) Research and prepare

Despite all of this, once you have got basic comfortability with the above approaches and methods, one important practice is still to research as much and as widely as you can. I know some may think “But practically nobody wrote about _______; how were we supposed to prepare??” Sometimes the answer is generics and general knowledge: generics, including definitions/interpretations, quotes, facts, concepts, etc. can help you withstand a large amount of surprise cases. Sometimes you can learn about surprise cases through networking at tournaments, emailing clubs about caselists, etc. This approach does provide diminishing returns fairly soon, so at some point your time will be better used preparing your affirmative case, strengthening your common negative briefs, or practicing your generic skills (including the practices described here), but it is still an approach that you should be using to an extent.


It’s usually very worrisome to get caught without research or preparation against a specific case. However, these are not hopeless situations—and in fact, could prove to be good opportunities. Again, this article only details a few of the (probably numerous) strategies that people have created, but nonetheless, even by just using the suggestions here, you can significantly improve your chances of succeeding. In particular, just continually remind yourself “There is probably a reason I haven’t heard of this case already” and try to find that reason, and you will be able to strike at the cases’ weak points. You might eventually reach a point where you even prefer the average surprise case over the average standard case.

Harrison Durland is a blogging intern at Ethos. Now a college student at Ole Miss, he is studying international affairs, Russian, (hopefully public policy,) and intelligence and security studies, seeking to do analyst work and perhaps later move into public policy or organizational administration. He began debate in his sophomore year of high school, in Stoa. Despite an unenthusiastic first year, he later found that he had a passion for debate, especially policy debate. His third and final year of high school debate was 2016, during which year he qualified to NITOC. His primary interests outside of debate and academics include his faith, ethics, and game and decision theory.

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