Our elite Mastership Sourcebooks for NCFCA and Stoa will release soon! Check them out here!

This is, hands down, the topic that I cover most as a coach. Every debater, new or experienced, has been in this situation. Listening to the first affirmative speaker (or PRO or GOV or PROP), and recognizing that not only do you NOT have any prepped material on what they are saying, but you also have to think of what you want to say before they are finished speaking.

What do you do in that situation? How do you secure the win against a case that you have never heard of and never prepped?

Well first, don’t panic. This is the stuff you already know, but need to be reminded of:

  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Use your prep time (if you are debating in a style that allows it)
  3. Utilize what you DO know. Cross apply generic evidence! You may not have a brief on Aff’s exact plan, but you may have evidence that can be applied to multiple cases. This is why it’s always good to prep briefs at the beginning of the year like “TOPIC – BAD,” and “TOPIC – GOOD.”
  4. Go to http://www.ethosdebate.com/downloads/ and download the Vague Mandate and Good Policy briefs. These will help you if nothing else does.

So now these are the skills and ideas that you need to cultivate, that you may (or may not) already know. Every case falls prey to the same potential faults. Any one of these can give the Neg several arguments

Alternate Causality

Many cases fall prey to the fallacy of alternate causality. For example: “Because Jimmy isn’t at school, he must be on vacation.” Those two statements aren’t necessarily related. They COULD be, but there is no evidence of it. Jimmy might be on a field trip, or sick, or visiting extended family members in Argentina. In other words, there might be another cause. Debaters will sometimes assume that the status quo causes things it doesn’t. Make the other team prove every line of their reasoning with evidence. All of their harms could be caused by alternate factors. Ergo, passing the Aff plan wouldn’t fix the harms.

Counter Criterion

Sometimes, Aff picks a criterion or value to “provide clarity to the round.” But if Aff is limiting the debate to a specific issue, it’s because it benefits them. As Neg, you should argue for Net Benefits. Why? Because you get the broadest possible selection of subjects to argue from. If Aff is limiting the debate to “quality of life,” they are ignoring geopolitical arguments or broader international impacts. If Aff limits the debate, they are, in essence, depriving Neg of valid ground to argue from. This is bad if you already don’t have a lot of material.

So structure your argument like this:

Counter Criterion: Net Benefits. RTP (Reason to Prefer): since the Affirmative team is limiting the debate, it disallows other issues that might affect the judge’s decision from entering under valid pretense. In essence, Aff isn’t being completely honest with you. Prefer our criterion because it allows for the broadest possible debate and takes into account all the factors of the plan.

Inherent Barrier

Ask, “Why has this plan not been passed already? What’s stopping it?” This may seem like a stupid idea, but first listen. If you ask Aff to prove what the inherent barrier is that keeps their case from passing immediately in the real world, you are in essence making Aff argue against their own plan AND giving yourself arguments you can run. If there is a compelling reason that people in real life ARE NOT passing the Aff plan, then it should also be an argument in the debate round (most of the time).

Elmore Evidence

There is a card that highlights a HUGE truth in the world of policy and law. Most of the success that follows a policy is determined by how that policy was implementednot how it was written.

Majority of Policy Success Resides in Implementation
Richard F. Elmore [is assistant professor of public affairs and assistant director of the Institute of Governmental Research at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is co-editor of Social Program Implementation and author of several articles on policy implementation] (peer-reviewed journal Winter 1979-1980). Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 94, No. 4 601-616, (Academy of Political science) “Backward Mapping: Implementation Research and Policy Decisions” http://www.psqonline.org/article.cfm?IDArticle=10628# [Ethos]

“The emergence of implementation as a subject for policy analysis coincides closely with the discovery by policy analysts that decisions are not self-executing. Analysis of policy choices matters very little if the mechanism for implementing those choices is poorly understood. In answering the question, “What percentage of the work of achieving a desired governmental action s done when the preferred analytic alternative has been identified?” Alli-son estimated that, in the normal case, it was about 10 percent, leaving the remaining 90 percent in the realm of implementation. Hence, in Nelson’s terms, “the core analysis of alternatives becomes prediction of how alternative organizational structures behave over…time.””
[Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1971),p.267

What does this mean? It means that Aff can’t control how their policy is implemented 100% of the time. Things will go wrong, people will mess it up. The debate is happening around the 10% mentioned in the evidence. Even if Aff drafts a perfect case, 90% of the success of solvency takes place outside the control of fiat.

When people disobey vague laws, the vague law goes to the courts. Then a random judge is interpreting Aff’s case, potentially differently than they wanted it to be interpreted. Fiat doesn’t allow control for that. Sure, you say, but that is non-unique to every policy! Indeed it is – but some policies fall prey to it much more than others. Some require very little implementation, and others require a lot.


Not every plan needs an advocate, but every case must have some sort of realistic support from scholars and real-world officials. Debaters can sometimes come up with hair-brained ideas which don’t exactly have huge amounts of credentialed support. Ask them in cross-ex, “Who supports your plan, or who advocates it? Who is behind it? A government agency? A congressman?” Then you can go on to ask WHY those people support such a measure.


When it comes to squirrel cases or hastily prepared cases based on niche policies, make sure to check the details. Check the date on the evidence: is it older than 10 years? Check to make sure the tagline matches the evidence. If the tag says “will” but the evidence says “could” then there is a problem. Lastly, check the author’s credentials. Make sure Aff isn’t using evidence from anyone who is less than a Ph.D. or field specialist on the issues they quote. Make sure you impact these, though–explain why it’s important to have all the details right.

Want more tips on how to beat a case you’re not prepared for? Another Ethos coach wrote on it here.

%d bloggers like this: