There has been no shortage of content covering counterplans over the years, but unfortunately there has been a lack of resources for those who already understand the theory. If you are one of those brave debaters who understands the risks and still wants to run a CP, this article is for you.
To clarify, this article assumes one major thing: that you understand the theory behind the type of counterplan you are running. If you don’t understand the justifications yourself, you have no chance of convincing a judge and will likely be embarrassed by the affirmative team. Before you can even think about winning with a CP, you need to know the theory like the back of your hand, know what the most common aff responses are, and know your responses to their responses. Not sure you’re up to speed? The other blog posts on CPs are a perfectly fine place to start.
If the judge is confused about what your strategy is when the 1N has finished their first speech, you’ve essentially already lost. A poor first impression will mean fighting uphill for the rest of the round. To eliminate this risk,
Unless you were specifically told otherwise in the judging philosophy, assume your judge knows nothing about counterplans. Spell out the fact that you are proposing a different, better plan that should be voted for instead of the affirmative plan. Don’t use the term “mutual exclusivity,” but do explain why it’s important that they choose one side or the other. Frame the debate very, very carefully by explaining that they must vote for the plan that is most advantageous.
Why is this so important, you ask? Because most judges are easily swayed by the aff team saying that “there are two affirmative teams.” To spike this, make it crystal clear that the judge should vote for the team with the better plan, and that you most definitely have the better plan. There’s no need to explain theory or to argue why the above is true– the most important thing during your first speech is to ensure that the judge understands your position, not to get them to agree with it.
Depending on how the affirmative responds, the debate round will go one of two very different ways.
Option A: The Easy One
The aff will not argue that your strategy isn’t valid, but will accept the counterplan and begin a civil discussion over which plan is preferable.
In this case, don’t just assume there is no CP debate and carry on with the round: there’s still judge bias to worry about. Take a few seconds to talk about how the aff has conceded the “legality” of your counterplan, and how that’s no longer a voting issue in the round. Doing this doesn’t take long, and it can save you tons of pain later when you find that the judge didn’t care that both teams agreed and still votes aff because “counterplans bad.”
Option B: The Painful One
The aff will declare your counterplan unacceptable by Debate Law, thus condemning the round to be a back and forth battle of debate theory in which you will probably destroy them.
The option is probably the more realistic one. If you’re well equipped (cough you should be cough) then you should have no trouble poking holes in their arguments. The important thing to be careful of is not overwhelming the judge. Don’t just spit the theory back out at them, make sure you’re condensing and clarifying. Before the round even begins, decide on the analogies and reasons to prefer that you are going to use to persuade them.
Additionally, you need to be the more confident team. Be clear, act like you know you’re right (because you are), and don’t act scared of the arguments. Handle the issues concisely but powerfully, and then move on to more reasons to prefer your plan.
Remember, counterplans aren’t just an interesting hypothetical or a fun lecture topic: they’re a viable, useful, and very powerful strategy. I hope that this helps make your rounds with them more enjoyable!
1. I think it’s useful to use “jargony” words if you have the time to clearly explain what they mean. “Mutual exclusivity,” for example, often makes your position sound more legitimate to a judge that doesn’t know the ropes of debate very well. In other words, it’s likely that the judge will view a position as more legitimate because there’s an official name for it.
2. The counterplan’s conflict / competitiveness with the Aff should be *intuitive*. It doesn’t matter whether the theory supports you or not; in a traditional league if the counterplan doesn’t at a gut-level instill a reaction against the 1AC plan, then the strategy is significantly less likely to work.
Makes sense to me! I defer to the expert 😉
Excellent article, Jeremiah! More people need to run counterplans this way for sure. I had two things come to mind when reading.
First, providing that the judge isn’t a brand-new community judge, I’d assume that the judge has a negative opinion of counterplans if you’re debating in a homeschool league. Even brand-new parents are sometimes against counterplans just because of how many clubs teach against them or TCPs. Specifically in a home school league, I would figure out rhetoric to use that will define your counterplan for a judge that doesn’t exactly know what one is (even if they know what counterplans are and are against it, it’s probably only for the reason that someone ran it wrong on them, and thus they don’t truly understand them). An example that worked well for me (and I never lost the right to run a CP when I competed in NCFCA) was starting my speech off with the opener that we were like the Senate and it’s perfectly acceptable for a Senator to agree with parts of a bill but disagree on others and propose an alternative without the parts he disagrees with.
Second, from my experience, I find that one of the easiest ways to make your judge think your confident when you’re running a TCP on a team who says that “there are two AFF teams” is to come up in CX and have your first question be “[Insert the best DA impact here from a different case in the same rez], is the resolution false?” So for instance, “Thousands of migrants drown in the ocean every year, is the resolution false?” They’ll answer no because that DA doesn’t apply to their case.
The chances are that your opponents don’t know rez-centrism well (and not many students in the homeschool leagues do!) and won’t be able to counter you coming up in your next speech and talking about how them conceding that question to you in CX means that once they picked their plan, they conceded all other grounds.
Overall, great article!
I am a novice and am approaching my third tournament. I have prepared many neg. briefs, but I still lack knowledge regarding the structure of a counterplan. Would one of y’all mind replying with the basic format of a CP?
The typical format is:
1. Text/Mandates of the counterplan
2. Competitiveness/Mutual exclustivity/why both can’t be passed
3. Solvency/how your plan solves for the same harms
4. Net Benefits/how your counterplan is better than the plan
Hope this helps!
John Gardner here. I am a first year debater and have always been told by my club that non-topical counterplans are the way to go. However, I am very interested in learning the specifics in a topical counterplan. You said in your article (a great piece by the way) that NEG can probably destroy AFF in a theory argument, but you didn’t really give many specifics. Could you possibly direct me to any resources (or just bring up some general strat here)? Thanks!
Hi John! Glad you enjoyed the article. The first thing I’d point you towards is another article (not by me this time):
This is a great starting place. If you want to get into more of the underlying philosophies, check out this article:
Anthony wrote a great piece here. The idea that only non-topical counterplans are legitimate is a result of the rezcentrist philosophy– this above article shows why plancentrism is preferable (by extension justifying TCPs).
Additionally, I’d recommend searching “counterplan” in the Ethos search bar and reading through as much material as possible. It’s possible to win both non-topical and topical CPs easily, provided you understand the theory involved. 95% of debaters in the NCFCA (my league) don’t understand anything beyond the very basics of rezcentrism, so if you’re able to fully grasp the concepts you have a huge competitive advantage. So, to clarify what I said in the article: the NEG position is not inherently stronger than the AFF, they’re probably pretty balanced. The reason why NEG (you) have an advantage is because you have a better understanding of what you’re talking about.
As you pointed out, I chose to leave out the theory from my article (as it’s already been covered in depth) and focus more on the logistics of running CPs. I think it’s awesome that you’re learning more about both sides even if it’s not what your club endorses. It’s way more educational (and fun!) when you try out and are exposed to different ideas, instead of just subscribing to debate norms (which vary radically depending on league and region).
Keep it up and let me know if you have more questions!