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You listen as the Aff speaker presents their case. They drone through their introduction and into their first point, and a sinking feeling begins to slide its icy fingers around your heart. You’ve never prepared a negative strategy against this case; you don’t know anything about this topic. In fact, if you’re being honest…you’ve never even heard of it.

If this is you, don’t panic! There are still plenty of ways to deliver solid arguments, and maybe–just maybe–you’ll even win the round. It’s all about tactics…

Let’s Talk Tactics

Like any competitive debate, your tactics should mitigate or downplay your own weaknesses and highlight or exploit the weaknesses of your opponent. In this case, your weakness is that you have no prepared arguments or evidence directly against the case you face.

Your opponents’ weakness is that their case is likely untested. They probably haven’t anticipated or faced every argument against them yet, and they don’t really know what you plan to argue. They probably haven’t had time to eliminate problematic evidence through trial and error. For many surprise cases, there’s probably a good reason it hasn’t become more popular—some fatal flaw that no amount of preparation can mask. So what does this actually look like in practice?

In the Round

There are a few actions you can take once you are inside the round.

1. Deliberately take lots of prep time before your first speech

Aff is coming into the round with a huge preparation advantage over you on this particular topic. Taking prep time early helps lessen that preparation gap. At this point, the Affirmative can’t really use their prep time to counter your arguments, because you haven’t made any yet; all they have to go on is the first cross-examination. More importantly, it gives you and your partner a few minutes to think through a response. The two most important things to decide in this time are 1) how not to contradict one another in round, and 2) an overarching negative philosophy that will tie your arguments together into a unified position with which the judge can agree.

2. Scrutinize the 1AC

If the Affirmative team gave you a copy of their 1AC, that’s the best source of case-specific evidence that you have in the round. Use it! Sure, you didn’t bring to the round a dedicated brief with pre-formatted quotes, but using evidence out the 1AC is just as good if it supports your points. If you read the context of their evidence, there will almost always be some argument going the other way. An added bonus about building your arguments off of 1AC evidence is that the Affirmative team can’t critique your sources’ credibility without damaging their own case.

Even if you can’t build an argument with the Affirmative evidence, you will likely discover that their evidence doesn’t really support the point that they were making. If you explain it to the judge, you can cancel out the Affirmative’s support for their main contentions. This isn’t a round-clincher by itself, but it will help you in other ways. It could force the Affirmative team to spend time repairing their case with additional evidence, although if their 1AC was poor, it’s unlikely their backup evidence is any better. It could also knock out some of the Aff arguments, giving you a less imposing edifice to overcome.

Reading the Affirmative case will also allow you to find logical flaws or gaps. Occasionally, an Affirmative team might make a logical fallacy. If you have a solid grounding in logic, you really don’t need evidence to explain that point to a judge. Alternatively, there may be gaps in the Affirmative support. Perhaps an argument requires a link and impact, but only one portion was supported by evidence. The other half of the argument is fair game. If it makes sense to attack, do so. But be wary, lest you be suckered into giving the Affirmative an opportunity to provide extra support for their case.

Practically speaking, there are many ways to implement this, based on team dynamics. Some teams may do this in the 1NC and find that this is a really good justification for using the prep time early. I often performed this role in the 2N position while my partner rarely took prep time for the 1NC. Others may split it between speeches, depending on the stock issue. Figure out with your partner what works for you, and then just keep doing that.

3. Poke and prod as much as possible in cross-examination

Most cases have about 20 different ways to attack them, but you can’t—and shouldn’t—raise that many arguments in the round. Cross-examination is where you poke and prod, figure out where they have responses that are weak, and where they are solid. Make sure your partner notes the weak spots and capitalizes on them in the next speech.

4. Make common sense arguments

This kind of goes without saying. If you don’t have printed evidence to work with, this is basically what you have to use. It’s really unfortunate if your judge is one who likes to see a lot of evidence, but otherwise, this can succeed if done well.

In particular, sometimes the judge spots a devastating flaw in the case and is hoping that someone raises the issue so he or she is allowed to vote on it. Try and figure out that issue. It might be obvious (if you imagine that you are as old as your judge); it might be something their body language gives away. But if you find the golden ticket, you don’t need evidence to convince the judge, and the other team can’t really refute it because the judge already believes it is true—which it likely is.

Before the Round

After reading these suggestions, you may feel like you will need a little bit extra oomph to successfully refute a case you haven’t prepared against. It’s a good idea to try to have some evidence to use in the round, so here are a few ways to prepare before the round begins.

1. Prepare generic arguments

Suppose you know that a lot of cases try to achieve X. If you find evidence showing why X is bad, then you can use it against any case that tries to achieve X. As in this (admittedly abstract) example, this is very simple with disadvantages, but it’s possible for other arguments as well. Having a handful of robust definitions could allow you to create a topicality argument on the fly. Having a file of generic statistics could allow you to mitigate some harms by refuting the Affirmative’s incorrect numbers. Some general information about how the government works or doesn’t work could spawn a solvency argument. Be creative.

2. Agree on some general negative themes

Perhaps there are certain topics that you and your partner are passionate about or where you’re familiar with the philosophical debate going on (for example liberty, economics, security). You can save prep time for arguments if you have a negative philosophy hashed out ahead of time, and you will just be more persuasive if you are passionate about something.

3. Counterplan at your own peril

I feel like I have to mention this because it’s such a common, go-to strategy for negative teams who find themselves unprepared. In my opinion, only about 5% of counterplans are actually good ones, and some that are commonly run don’t deserve the name. If you embrace counterplans, I beg you—as a former debater, as a judge, and as someone who cares about the future of America—don’t do either of these two things. 1) Don’t stipulate their plan as part of your counterplan. A counterplan should solve the original harms in an alternate, non-compatible way, not claim to solve new harms that are only created by the enactment of their case. 2) Don’t slightly tweak their plan and run it as a counterplan. Be a choice, not an echo. That is how to bore your judge.

I hope this article has given some helpful ideas on how to practically apply some useful tactics and improve your argumentation against surprise cases. You can read more on this topic here and here. With tournament season coming up, it won’t be long before you have a chance to put those ideas to good use.


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