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Advantage Counterplans: The Key to Further Skewing Neg Win Rates
As one of the most strategic arguments in policy-style debates, advantage counterplans should appear in more 1NCs and 2NRs, but all too often, debaters forego them in favor of questionably competitive counterplans or the status quo. In this article, Amadea discusses how poor 1AC construction should guide advantage counterplan research and how the neg should approach extending one in the 2NR to further skew neg win rates.
What are advantage counterplans?
Advantage counterplans attempt to solve one or more of the aff advantages without doing the action of the plan. Since these CPs are generally not mutually exclusive with the aff (it is possible to do both the plan and the counterplan), they compete through net benefits – it is undesirable to do both because that includes the aff, which triggers a disadvantage that the counterplan avoids.
Why are advantage counterplans so strategic?
These counterplans are strategic due to three trends in aff construction:
1. Narrow plans that don’t do anything
Many debaters gravitate towards writing small, narrow plans that draw from the margins rather than the core topic literature. The rationale might sound reasonable on face – narrow affs can skirt core topic generics and reduce the aff prep burden since only so many DAs link to a plan that makes minuscule changes to the status quo.
The flip side of doing so little is that these affs also solve less of their advantages. After all, there’s a reason generic affs are considered generic: scholars in the field are advocating for them because they believe such plans would solve significant impacts, which isn’t the case for plans and advantages that debaters invent by stringing together a long chain of internal links. Such smaller affs are thus vulnerable to alt cause arguments: arguments that claim that the aff can’t solve certain factors that make their impacts inevitable. These factors both lower the threshold for counterplan solvency (because the less the aff solves, the less the counterplan has to solve to be equivalent to the aff) and open the door to counterplans that also solve those alt causes, producing extra solvency net benefits that the aff can’t access.
Proponents of such smaller affs might respond that the narrow scope of aff solvency doesn’t matter if the plan reduces its ability to solve its impacts to the same extent that it reduces the links to DAs. But the latter is still much less of a given than the former: why read an aff that you know doesn’t solve its impacts in the hopes that the neg will be unable to cut a specific link for their generic DA, cut a new aff-specific DA that wouldn’t have even linked to the generic aff, or impact/internal link turn one scenario while counterplanning out of the rest?
2. Affs that read one internal link and spam a ton of impacts (or vice versa, which is less common)
Many 1ACs get away with murder on advantages – they read one internal link and spam ten different impacts, which might be strategic when the neg extends a DA and impact defense to the case, but not when the neg tests whether the plan is necessary to solve any of those impacts. This becomes apparent once you take a step back and think about the aspects that determine whether the aff is a good idea or not. Guaranteeing the right to housing, for example, does not become a more appealing proposal because homelessness exacerbates a greater number of existential threats (especially when most catastrophic risks already act as threat multipliers, increasing the chances of other catastrophic risks) but because it solves homelessness through specific mechanisms that other policies might not be able to emulate – and affs without a robust defense of those mechanisms do not have a compelling “aff key” warrant against competing policies. Advantage counterplans should thus become a natural response for the neg – if the aff reads one internal link to all their impacts, the neg can read a counterplan that solves that link, mooting all the aff’s impacts and forcing the 1AR to win one argument that was not well-substantiated in the 1AC to avoid losing the round.
Other 1ACs suffer from the opposite problem – they read multiple internal links but just one impact. This strikes me as less of an issue, perhaps because it’s much less common but also because these affs can at least solve that one impact, which is preferable to the affs that solve none. However, reading just one or two impacts still leaves them open to counterplans that solve that impact, especially when the aff is likely not the one proposal that can solve it. The fact that people recycle the same terminal impacts from topic to topic – such as disease, climate change, or economic growth – should indicate to debaters that the aff does not solve all causes of the impact but a small portion of them. Thinking about the scope of aff solvency like this makes advantage counterplans seem like more strategic options because the task for the neg becomes not finding a counterplan that solves the same causes of the impact, but rather the same portion of the terminal impact as the plan.
3. The proliferation of process advantages
Sometimes the 1AC will also include an advantage that defends the aff’s mechanism to build in deficits against process counterplans (that do the aff through a different process). These advantages tend to be susceptible to advantage counterplans because they only argue that one portion of the aff is good i.e. the particular process that might be a component of the aff but is not intrinsic to the action of the plan. For example, on the housing topic, some debaters at camp read an advantage that argued that the aff would include the U.S. aligning itself with international human rights law, but that outcome did not require the U.S. guaranteeing a right to housing when we could pass various other policies consistent with international human rights doctrines.
For the aff, process advantages are typically not the best use of time – not only do they not effectively preempt process counterplans when the neg can solve them with an advantage counterplan and extend both the process and advantage counterplans in the 2NR, but most if not all process counterplans aren’t worth preempting in the first place (a topic for another article).
How should the neg approach advantage counterplan writing?
Now that we’ve discussed the strategic value of advantage counterplans, debaters might be wondering how to approach counterplan research and writing. I’d recommend that students keep the following advice in mind:
1. Map out the format of the aff.
As discussed above, some affs read one internal link and spam a dozen impacts, whereas some read multiple internal links that converge at one impact, and others will fall somewhere between these two extremes (but closer to one end than the other).
For newer debaters, mapping out the structure of the aff can help determine which of these categories best describes the advantages and create a path of least resistance that informs counterplan research. If the aff reads one internal link, the neg should read a counterplan to solve that link; if the aff instead reads one terminal impact, the neg should read a counterplan to solve the impact – since you want to minimize the parts of the aff the 1AR can leverage as deficits.
However, debaters should keep in mind that counterplans that solve the terminal impact might be riskier because it is easier for the aff to generate new 1AR deficits via new impacts rather than internal links. This is because the topic literature determines the potential internal links, which imposes constraints that often force debaters to read new impact scenarios as well, consuming too much 1AR time. Reading new internal links (without new impact scenarios) also requires making the deficits to the existing advantage counterplan more explicit (not much explanation is needed to explain that a Ban Fossil Fuels CP that solved the Climate Advantage would not also solve a new disease impact, for example). I wouldn’t be opposed to hearing a new 2NR counterplan in response to new 1AR impacts, given that it serves the same function as new defense against the impact, but I imagine that some judges would be – and the neg shouldn’t want to put themselves in this position regardless, since 1AR restarts favor the aff.
2. Center your strategy around aff evidence.
Aff solvency and internal link evidence can provide the perfect starting point for counterplan research. Sometimes the aff evidence might even advocate for alternative policies along with the plan, which you can turn into a counterplan. Other times it might claim that a proposal must meet a threshold/requirement to solve the aff impacts (which should give you an idea of the types of counterplans to research and help you frame counterplan versus plan solvency in the 2NR) or list alt causes to the aff impacts (which reduces aff solvency and the subsequent neg solvency burden). In some cases, the re-highlighted evidence might be worth including in the 1NC – either on the counterplan or the case page – to set up 2NR arguments.
3. Keep the net benefit in mind.
Remember that advantage counterplans only matter to the extent that you can pair them with a net benefit, assuming they are not mutually exclusive with the aff. This becomes the most relevant when the advantage counterplan is so similar to the aff that it solves all the advantages but also triggers the net benefit. In those cases, you might want to write a counterplan that solves an impact further down the internal link chain (to create more points of disagreement between the plan and the counterplan that can generate a DA) or write a counterplan that solves one advantage and then read a link or impact turn on the other advantage as a net benefit.
That's not to say you can't win off a counterplan that links to the net benefit to some extent. Like all arguments in debate, “links to the net benefit” is probabilistic, meaning that it is not a question of whether the counterplan links but how much it links. A counterplan solves the aff impacts to the same extent as the plan while linking to the DA less still justifies a neg ballot, but you should be prepared to explain why the link differential outweighs any solvency differential, which can be tricky given that risk analysis in debate is inherently imprecise so it can be difficult to compare risks as nuanced as the link versus solvency differential.
4. Write specific counterplan texts with well-developed solvency arguments in the 1NC.
Most advantage counterplans in 1NCs are underdeveloped, which makes the 1AR look justified when grouping together planks or responding with incomplete deficits. An advantage counterplan text including ten different planks that are as vague as “the U.S. ought to increase innovation” or “the U.S. ought to invest in pandemic preparedness” without explanations for how the U.S. ought to accomplish those goals or how that mechanism solves the aff (which often but not always requires solvency evidence) does not make a complete argument and thus does not demand aff responses. After all, the burden of proof is on the neg to establish that the counterplan solves an advantage – how do you expect the 1AR to make a solvency deficit when the solvency argument doesn't exist until the 2NR? While multi-plank counterplans can be strategic to solve different internal links, only read as many planks as you can make a complete argument for in the 1NC; otherwise, you won't be able to exploit the fact that the 1AR might not have actual deficits.
How should the neg deliver an effective 2NR on an advantage counterplan?
Although this entire article is about advantage counterplans, you should remember to structure all speeches with offense first. Since advantage counterplans alone are defense to the case because they do not present an opportunity cost to the plan absent the net benefit, you should extend the DA first and the counterplan second (with a few exceptions).
On the counterplan, the 2NR should start with a three-part solvency overview that centers around how the counterplan (or each plank of the counterplan) solves each scenario and interacts with the aff deficits, not what the counterplan does in a vacuum. Sometimes debaters will include a long, floating explanation of the counterplan’s mechanism at the top of the 2NR, which is irrelevant to judges without a direct implication for evaluating the round i.e. a reason the counterplan solves the aff.
Some people choose to explain the counterplan mechanism on the deficits themselves, but that's just a matter of personal preference. I do like that this method forces the 2NR to interact more with the deficits but since the 1AR will often read various under-developed deficits unconnected to an advantage or impact, I tend to find it easier to group the solvency explanation at the top – or at least group the first two out of the three parts, and then explain the third part on each deficit depending on the debate.
This explanation should include these three parts:
1. The aff claims that X is necessary and sufficient to solve Y advantage.
For the first part, you should establish the threshold the aff has claimed the plan meets to solve their impacts.
I will add a brief digression here – at first glance, this part might feel artificial because as I discussed briefly above, there's no such thing as “solving” an advantage when no one should ever place the risk of a plan solving the terminal impacts at 100%. The world is a complicated place replete with uncertainties, and rarely if ever does the aff evidence make definitive claims that one event will lead to another or that the plan will solve all causes of an impact (which is the reason advantages do not start at 100% risk, and each internal link lowers the risk of an overall advantage). The fact that the aff never 100% solves an advantage also entails that we should not conceptualize solvency in terms of “thresholds” because solvency is a linear, not a binary question – a proposal doesn't shift from “not solving” to “solving” an impact once it crosses a magical threshold. A plan that solves 25% of the causes of nuclear war is 25% better than one that solves 0%, and one that solves 75% is also 25% better than one that solves 50% because the former proposals all mitigate the risks of nuclear war more than the latter ones.
That said, you can still make a version of the threshold argument to effectively frame counterplan solvency. Instead of phrasing the argument as “here’s the threshold to solve the advantage,” you should phrase it as “here’s the threshold the aff claims the plan meets to solve the advantage (based on 1AC evidence, CX, and 1AR explanations).” The former articulates solvency as an all-or-nothing question for a proposal in a vacuum, whereas the latter contextualizes it to the aff by claiming the plan meets a certain threshold to solve part of the impacts – and the counterplan must do the same to solve as much of the impacts as the aff does (even if that will never 100% solve them).
For example, the 2NR could say that to solve the Legitimacy Advantage, the aff claims the U.S. must pass a law consistent with international human rights doctrine – or, to solve the Climate Advantage, the aff claims that the U.S. must reduce emissions to a certain degree.
2. The counterplan does X.
You should then explain the action of the counterplan and how it meets the threshold the aff has established to solve the scenario. In the Legitimacy Advantage example, the 2NR could claim that the counterplan passes a law consistent with international human rights doctrine (with a brief justification, depending on how clear-cut the aff threshold and neg solvency argument are).
3. Sufficiency framing.
Finally, you should respond to the deficits via sufficiency framing arguments. In general, debaters think of sufficiency framing as the claim that the aff will win some deficit; however, the threshold for voting aff shouldn't be whether a deficit exists but whether the solvency differential between the plan and the counterplan outweighs the risk to the net benefit. That said, stating the definition of sufficiency framing is unhelpful for judges who will (or should) approach counterplan debates with that understanding regardless. Instead, you should explain why the residual deficits do not matter in the context of the round.
You can do this in three ways:
a. Links to the aff
First, you can argue that the deficits also link to the aff since the plan does not meet the standard of scrutiny that the aff debater has applied to the counterplan. For example, on the housing topic, perhaps the aff argues that the Universal Basic Income (UBI) CP cannot solve the Inequality Advantage because an annual $12,000 check is insufficient for people to afford necessities; in response, the neg can argue that the right to housing is also insufficient in that sense because providing them with housing does not give them the abilities to afford other basic needs like healthcare or education.
Including these arguments in the 1NC can be strategic even if you kick counterplan in the 2NR because you can extend them as alt causes that still implicate aff solvency in a DA/case debate, illustrating the role of counterplans as case defense.
b. Solvency net benefits
Second, you can generate solvency net benefits by arguing that even if the counterplan doesn't solve X as well as the aff, it solves Y better than the aff. That builds on the first response by claiming that not only does the aff face similar solvency issues, but the counterplan resolves those issues. With the UBI example above, the 2NR can say that a UBI better enables people to afford necessities because the payments are not tethered to housing, so people can decide whether to spend them on housing, healthcare, or education. While it's important to note that a solvency net benefit is not offense alone unless the counterplan is mutually exclusive with the aff, you can frame it as a reason it compensates for deficits the aff might be ahead on.
c. No impact
Third, you can argue there’s no impact to their deficits, which (if the aff is framing their deficits correctly), is equivalent to internal link defense to the case. Using the UBI example, the neg could say there’s no impact to people not being able to afford housing with their $12,000 checks because homelessness isn’t the cause of most wealth inequalities (the impact to their advantage). This argument works best if the 1NC has read it as case defense because it often requires evidence to establish. However, sometimes deficits might appear unconnected to the aff, in which case this “no impact” argument would not function as internal link defense to the case but would instead point out the discrepancies between the 1AC and the counterplan responses. You can also flag to the judge that any 1AR deficits not attached to advantage or impacts are incomplete arguments because they don’t have implications, so any explanations would be new in the 2AR.
Finally, debaters might be wondering how to answer 1AR perm arguments. I won’t cover this topic in depth because these shouldn't be a cause for concern if you've paired your advantage counterplan with a net benefit that is intrinsic to the action of the plan. “Perm do both” will link to the net benefit, and “perm do the counterplan” will be obvious severance, which can never be a reason to vote aff because it does not prove the resolution true irrespective of theoretical concerns.
I hope this article encourages debaters to reconsider advantage counterplans as part of their negative arsenal. If you take away one idea from this article, it should be that you shouldn't treat advantage counterplans as generic positions you copy and paste into different 1NCs – instead, you should think of them as direct responses to the aff plan and advantages both in terms of how you select the planks and explain solvency arguments in the 1NC and 2NR. Remember that you can only take advantage of poor 1AC construction if you’re reactive to that 1AC – and you shouldn’t waste the opportunity. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or suggestions, or disagree with anything I’ve written!
Amadea Datel is a senior at Dartmouth College who debated college policy at both Columbia and Dartmouth. She reached the quarterfinals at the Gonzaga Jesuit Debates and won the University of Minnesota College Invitational, the Crowe Warken Debates at USNA, and the Mid America Championship, ranking as the 25th team nationally her sophomore year. In high school, she built and coached her school’s LD debate team, won several tournaments in Massachusetts, and was the top speaker and a semifinalist at the MSDL State Championship and the first student from her school to qualify for NSDA and NCFL Nationals, clearing at the former. She is currently the Co-Director of LD at the Victory Briefs Institute and an Assistant Coach at Apple Valley High School.