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Negative Strategy – How to Make the 1AR a Nightmare by Raffi Piliero
Raffi Piliero debated for Harrison High School for 4 years, clearing at the TOC twice, and finishing as bid leader his senior year. He also won several national tournaments and several top speaker awards, and now debates for Georgetown University.
One of the first things that even the youngest of debaters realize upon giving a 1AR is how challenging it is. 4 minutes to respond to 7 minutes in the NC, and the potential for a 6-minute collapse to whatever was most lightly covered make answering everything sufficiently a real challenge. The best debaters know how to set up a 2NR that’s both well crafted, and takes advantage of significant 1AR missteps. We all know the 1AR is hard, but this article will go over some ways to make the 1AR even harder than ever!
1. Know when to layer
One of the fun things about being neg is that while the AFF speaks first and sets the round, the NC gives plenty of wiggle room to put out lots of different sources of offense, giving the 2NR a plethora of choices from which to pick. From CPs to DAs to Ks to T violations to NCs, the options seem endless
There’s no one rule of thumb for how many layers are too many, and how many are too few. Plenty of successful neg debaters made it a habit to read 3 off case positions and answer the case; others 2, some even 4. For the most part, the number of layers should depend on several factors. These include, but aren’t limited to, the quality of both your case arguments and off case arguments (if the link turn is true and your cards are great on it, why not heavily invest in that and cut down on the number of time spent reading other, inferior layers?), the judge, and concerns about 1AR theory.
Successful layering involves having diversified offense. For example, an NC that relies on the same fundamental premise as several case turns allows the Aff to just beat one argument, and the rest all go away. Similarly, there’s no point in reading two DAs with an econ impact, since then arguments on one page apply to the other as well.
It’s often useful to also have different types of arguments as well; what I mean by this is arguments that challenge different components of the Aff and interact with Aff offense in different ways. For example, reading a DA and a framework NC might be more strategic than reading two Das if it seems like the framework isn’t particularly well justified; then, if after the 1AR, it seems like the Aff is ahead on substance, the 2NR can make a choice to mitigate that by just going for the NC. Leaving the 2NR plenty of options and forcing the 1AR to debate the framework, and substance is a good way to force the Aff to not make mistakes However, this isn’t to say that doubling down early in the debate is always a mistake. For example, if the Aff expects a framework-heavy strategy and frontloads a ton of framework preempts in the 1AC, going for 2 DAs and a CP might be something that throws them off guard, and moots most of the 1AC.
In line with this, it’s often important and helpful to think of neg arguments in terms of time tradeoff. Given 1AR time pressures, if an argument takes you an equal time to make as it does for the 1AR to deal with it sufficiently, that’s a great time tradeoff since it likely means the 1AR had to undercover something as a result. In contrast, if an argument took you a minute to make but the 1AR dismisses it in 30 seconds, then that’s a much poorer time tradeoff.
However, one trap that debaters sometimes fall into is taking this too far, and filling the NC with a bunch of bad, blippy arguments that aren’t viable options for the 2NR. While on face this might seem strategic in terms of time tradeoffs, if the 1AR can spend very little time on a position that they know the 2NR realistically can’t/won’t go for and can just dare you to go for, it hasn’t helped you. A good rule of thumb for deciding whether to include a position in the NC should be that if you think it could be something you can give a 2NR on absent 1AR mistakes, then it can be included; otherwise, use that time with something else.
In a similar vein, sometimes the best move is few, if any layers. One overlooked strategy is going one off and dumping a ton of arguments on the case – one possible iteration of this is reading a Phil NC and making a ton of framework arguments. Another possible strategy is conceding the framework and turning the Aff for the entire NC. As mentioned above, none of these strategies are “better” or “worse” – it depends on the round, opponent, and the AFF. If the framework is poorly justified, going for a framework-heavy strategy might make more sense than putting other sub-optimal arguments in the NC that don’t challenge the weakest part of the AC. And, “straight-turning” the AC for 7 minutes of the NC is a great way to catch the 1AR off guard, especially if they haven’t rigorously justified the advantages/you think your evidence is just far better.
2. Dump lots of offense on the case
Case debate is a lost art, which is unfortunate given how important it is. From being able to straight turn an advantage and collapse to that as a 2NR, to reducing the risk of the AFF to zero and going for a DA, being good at case debate is often enough to win a debate.
The first important thing to keep in mind is that a good analytic is better than a bad card any day. Most AFFs and internal links aren’t rigorously justified, and evidence quality is often abysmal. If you think about arguments through the lens of “what would someone in the real world think of this?” you’ll be surprised at how weak many arguments seem outside of the bubble that’s debate.
Another good lens to view arguments through whether the Aff is necessary AND sufficient; if it’s not necessary, it’s likely that the status quo solves it, and if it’s not sufficient, then a slew of alt causes likely exist. Very very few Aff arguments can hit the sweet spot of demonstrating that nothing is happening to address it now and that the Aff is the sole solution, plus that nothing else would get in the way.
In line with the above, reading a combination of offense and defense can pressure the 1AR, and often force them into contradictions that make other arguments stronger. For example, if the AFF reads a warming advantage and the neg says that warming isn’t existential, and that it’s too late to address warming, many Aff answers to it being existential will hinge on a tipping point being reached that we’re dangerously close to; the 2NR can concede this argument, which lowers the bar for the other argument about it being too late if there’s such a short timeframe to act.
Finally, don’t be afraid to commit to going for offense on the case. If you’re just positive that the Aff is wrong about everything, why not just read 4 minutes of turns, and not read defense that the Aff could concede to get out of the turns? Many 1ARs, due to pressure to not undercover off case positions, just blow through the case and undercover important arguments that can be a standalone 2NR.
But even if case debate isn’t your thing, or you’d rather go for something else in a particular 2NR, always make sure to cover your bases on the case anyways; far too many 2NRs get there with too little time, and undercover either solid 1AR impact calculus or reasons why the case turns whatever offense the neg is going for, which allows for an easy 2AR collapse
3. Answering new AFFs
Many debaters instinctually will flip Aff if their opponent tells them at the flip that they’re breaking new; while certainly defensible, the neg still has plenty of advantages even if the Aff is new, and I’ll make the case that in most situations, being neg is ultimately still preferable. The neg still has a devastating time advantage, the ability to uplayer and moot the Aff, and most judges will show the neg a lot more love in terms of neg flex/theory due to the unpredictable nature of debating a new Aff – I’ll go into each of these below.
The first, and often most essential part of debating new Affs is the prep that goes into them ahead of time. Well in advance of the tournament, you should have thought through what kind of positions you think are likely to apply and be a good “functional limit”. If philosophy is your thing, plan on going for a FW NC that you think is likely to apply to most Affs. Generic policy strats like the States CP + the Politics DA or a Process CP are likely to apply to the vast majority of affirmatives. A generic K like neoliberalism is also a strong candidate, if that’s something you feel comfortable with. The bottom line is that while not as preferable as a case-specific strategy, going for something you’re comfortable with can be effective in making the round come down to your strengths.
In line with the above, one thing that all of those have in common is that they deflate the the Aff; what I mean by that is they’re all preclusive arguments and appeal to something that doesn’t rely on knowing the nuances of the Aff, or figuring out what the “trick” of the Aff is. Having several options available after the NC is helpful; for example, a solid strategy could be a T violation, the states CP, a politics DA, and a FW NC, since that opens up at least 3 independent 2NRs that would all be preclusive and not rely on winning the case debate.
Finally, one thing that debaters should take advantage of (and be able to justify) is new Affs justifying more neg flexibility. Just consider how much prep goes into writing and researching a position; the Aff will know a lot more about a genuinely new position than the neg can possibly ascertain in CX and 4 minutes of prep. If the neg needs to have more options available in the NC, and the “trick” of the Aff doesn’t become clear until the 1AR, it seems incredibly reasonable for the neg to get to read an otherwise objectionable counterplan, have more leeway with conditionality, or more, because of the in-built advantage the Aff walks in with in terms of knowing substantially more about the Aff.
4. Know when to avoid (and bait) 1AR theory
It’s no secret that a lot of debaters like to restart in the 1AR by reading theory, and setting up a potential 2AR collapse to it. However, introducing new theory is always a risk issue. As my high school coach Mr. Hertzig memorably told me as a freshman, “Introducing theory is tossing a loaded gun into the fight, and you never know who will end up with it”. For the 1AR to have a theory argument that could viably be the 2AR, it probably requires 45 seconds to a minute, which seriously complicates the ability to cover the rest of the flow, especially if the neg strategically layered and put out a lot.
If you’re debating someone who you know likes to go for theory, is weak at substance, and will go for it no matter what, don’t make their job easier. If you read a DA and case turns, (or even several DAs) the number of plausible 1AR theory interps they could read really should fall to 0, and in front of all but the most theory friendly judges the 2NR on theory should be a crush.
Similarly, if you’re in front of someone who’s very weak at theory and is unlikely to read it, there’s no shame in taking a few more liberties in terms of number or types of advocacies, among other things. Obviously though don’t bite off more than you can chew, especially in front of a judge that’s receptive to theory, or you might end up losing by having underestimated theory.
5. Adjust to your opponent, their Aff, and their weaknesses
A good neg debater should know the 1AC better than the Aff does, and be able to know what the most threatening Aff answers and strategies are and could be in a given debate. Having read the Aff articles, rehighlighting evidence that goes your way, and just generally being able to speak intelligently about the Aff not only looks good and helps with speaker points but also greatly increases your chances of finding that knockdown counterplan that all the Aff authors agree solves the Aff, or at the very least knowing what arguments are most potentially dangerous that you’ll have to deal with.
It’s also helpful to debate with comparative strengths and weaknesses in mind. As mentioned earlier, try to find the weakest parts of the 1AC and spend a lot of time attacking those. This also applies to figuring out what your opponent wants the debate to come down to, and not playing to their strengths. If you’re debating a util Aff, and your opponent is terrified of a framework debate, the basic strategic move would be to go for a framework NC. However, the next level is to be able to adjust to and predict their likely response. They might overcompensate by overcovering that in the 1AR, and you should be ready to execute something else that subsequently was undercovered as a result
Making the 1AR hard is fun, and the strategic thinking involved is fulfilling and valuable to work on. That being said, while keeping these tips in mind will help, watching debates and knowing your prep well are also instrumental to successfully executing these strategies. Good luck!