Games Outside Of Games: Policy Debate

A few weeks ago I wrapped up a week-long debate camp for high school students. I’ve probably coached at 10 or so of these kinds of camps over the years, and this one was a highlight. One thing I tried to emphasize this year was the role of strategy in debate, as I noticed it was something rarely discussed or practiced. 

I should back up a bit, for the uninitiated. The style of debate I coach is called Team Policy, and it involves teams of two people debating about the merits of a policy proposal within a particular topic. This year my teams will be debating about US energy policy. One team, the “affirmative” will propose a policy change in their first speech and justify it, and the debate follows after that with timed speeches. 

If we look at the structure of the debate round, the similarities to a board game become clear. Indeed, debate is a game by most classifications, though it has a subjective victory metric, so it’s in a similar category as, say, gymnastics. The speeches are labeled, in order, as:









The number and first letter identify who gives that speech: first affirmative, first negative, second affirmative, etc. The last letter is the kind of speech: constructive or rebuttal. There are cross examination periods after each constructive speech, but that’s not important for this article. Each of the constructive speeches is 8 minutes long, and the rebuttals are 5 minutes.

Study that list and you’ll notice that the back and forth order of the speeches is interrupted in the middle by two negative team speeches in a row. This is called the “negative block” and it’s the centerpiece of a lot of debate strategy. In theory this tempo boost is meant to counter the fact that the affirmative team gets to lay the groundwork for what the debate is actually about. In addition, the affirmative gets the last word with the 2AR. I don’t remember how this started, but it’s proven to be fairly equitable throughout debate history.

Looking at debate in the abstract, your resources are your arguments and time, and they work against each other. Each argument takes a particular amount of time, and you need to balance the efficacy of the argument against the other arguments you have and how long it should take to deliver them. You also need to think about how your arguments work together (or don’t) to make a persuasive case as a whole.


The tempo gain built into the structure of the debate round is fascinating. “Tempo” as a concept is often applied to 2-sided games where there are opportunities to advance one’s position while also hindering the opponent’s position. In chess, if you make a move that develops a piece while simultaneously putting your opponent in check, you “gain a tempo” because your opponent must defend their king in response instead of advancing their own attack. (Unless, of course, they can respond with a defensive move that also counterattacks).

I found Netrunner to be an excellent study in tempo. Look at Temujin Contract, for instance. This card was created to give the Criminal faction a boost, but it ended up getting banned because it was too powerful overall. Liberated Account was already a staple economy card with similar, but slightly worse stats. The reasoning, I suspect, is that Temujin would be more difficult to utilize because it requires a risky action (running a server) in order to get the money, while the Liberated Account money doesn’t require anything behind spending actions.

The problem was that Temujin actually countered an important part of the tempo game in Netrunner. One of the reasons Netrunner is so brilliant is that there are multiple secondary games happening at any one time. The primary game is scoring points through advancing or stealing agendas. Secondarily is the economic game, as credits determine so much of the potential harm you can do. There are other games that can happen via tags, damage, board destruction, link/tracing, and more.

More to the point, Netrunner sidesteps runaway leader issues you see in Magic: The Gathering by making scoring points economically disadvantageous. Scoring an agenda requires many clicks (actions) and some credits. Stealing agendas requires running on servers, which usually requires money to get through whatever ice is blocking those servers. Additionally there’s risk to running, as you might be damaged by the corporation’s traps. The key is that if you score in a game of Netrunner that can give your opponent an opportunity to score back as you recover.

Temujin Contract gave you money back as your ran on a server, diminishing that recovery time (or sometimes making it actually profitable to run on a server). It wasn’t only an economic advantage, it was a tempo advantage. You condensed actions by being able to run and get money at the same time and your opponent was denied potential scoring windows. This made Temujin an extremely good economic card and eventually got it banned.

The Block

Back to the negative block in policy debate. How can a debate team utilize this very strong structural advantage best? There are three primary strategies that have developed for how to structure the negative argumentation. 

First, you can do what’s called a negative split, where the 1NC and the 2NC present completely separate argumentation. The 1NC mostly argues against the “case”–the reasons for change presented by the affirmative team. The 2NC covers “plan” arguments, mostly disadvantages. This has been popular in the history of debate and in the league I coach because it follows a natural persuasive cadence: “they overstate the problem, they can’t fix it, and it’ll make things worse”. This fits the human ear well and it allows more time for the negative team to prepare the disadvantages–usually the most powerful arguments.

Second, teams can pull what’s called the “Emory switch”, where they split up the arguments but in almost the completely opposite order: the 1N handles the plan and the 2N the case. This was originally developed as a surprise tactic, but has lost most of that luster as it was used more. But, it has the advantage of giving more time to develop those powerful disadvantages through multiple speeches. There’s also a subtle rhetorical advantage as with the normal split you spend roughly the first third of the debate round on the affirmative team’s “ground” disputing their reasons for change. The Emory switch is a more aggressive tactic, pushing the discussion immediately into disadvantage narratives.

Finally, there’s what we like to call the “shell and extend” strategy, where all of the negative team’s arguments are presented in the 1NC and further developed during the block. I find this to be potentially the most intriguing strategy, as it’s specifically trying to utilize the tempo boost in a different way. Instead of putting the 1AR in a tricky position by forcing them to respond to brand new 2NC argumentation, the shell and extend team is trying to overwhelm them by already winning the key arguments through a round of responses before that speech even arrives.

Comparing Strategies

So which one’s best? I’ve advised my students to consider all three and use whichever suits their situation best. Maybe one of the teammates is particularly good at a certain type of argumentation, and they want to run those arguments every round without deviation. That’s fine, and I’d recommend that they stick with one style. But for a more advanced team I’d recommend they look at this on a case by case basis.

More precisely, they should choose the strategy that will have them decisively winning the round after the block, the 1AR helpless to rescue their case. What makes a 1AR impossible? As a longtime deliverer of this most difficult speech, there are two things I always leaned on: help from the 2AC and being able to “lump and dump” arguments (finding responses that can be cross-applied to multiple negative arguments–always challenge assumptions!).

As the negative, then, we want to block those two aids. So we should look at our prepared arguments and try to figure out where potential “lumping” could happen. Do multiple disadvantages rely on a similar link scenario? Is our case side argumentation reliant on a particular evidentiary source? Consider sticking those arguments in the 1NC.

What about 2AC assistance? I try to instruct my 2AC speakers to bring everything back to the affirmative ground for at least the last two minutes of their speech. What if the 1NC is so varied and detailed that they can’t find that additional time? Then you’ve carried your momentum over through their entire speech and can walk into the block easy. Now we’re thinking about converting time advantages between two equal length speeches, something I don’t see debaters thinking about at this point in the debate.

So maybe instead of trying to overwhelm the 1AR with new argumentation, the trick to utilizing your tempo boost is to win the first exchange. If you can take away some of the rhetorical momentum the affirmative is used to having in the 2AC, you can find and exploit weaknesses in their response and generate a bigger time advantage on an argument by argument basis in the block.

I think the key is understanding your second-line responses. It’s fairly simple for an experienced team to come up with a response to pretty much anything. If that response is countered by even deeper analysis, you’re in a great place. Where do you have the most time to develop those second-line responses? The block. Too often teams try to spread out the 1AR when the best strategy is to position yourself to give them your most developed, nuanced arguments.

In that sense shell and extend might be the best strategy of all, though it’s easily the most difficult to execute well. It’s a high-variance strategy that requires practice to master and the right amount of research to be able to go in-depth for the entire block.

Coming Out Of The Weeds

What’s the point of this article? If you’re still reading you might be scratching your head a bit wondering why I just rambled on about a semi-obscure activity that you’ll probably never get to participate in even if you wanted to. Well, I partially wrote this for my students (hi there!). It’s an intellectual exercise for myself trying to tease out some more knowledge I can give them. I also wanted to share my enthusiasm for debate as a game full of richness and depth even on the abstract level. It’s a beautiful system for testing people in the activity of critical argumentation.

Finally, and perhaps a bit more cynically, I wanted to show what debate can be in a year where we’re going to see a lot of televised political debates. I recently gave a few remarks to families potentially interested in joining the debate club, and I joked that this kind of debate is a sort of antidote to those frequently grotesque spectacles. It’s not that I think presidential debates should be structured like a policy round. That wouldn’t work precisely because the goal of policy debate is to be an intellectual game and the goal of a presidential debate ought to be to aid people in understanding who would make the best president.

The structure of policy debate isn’t perfect (in fact, my favorite style of debate I’ve ever participated in is markedly different), but at least it’s interesting and in line with the goals of the activity. Beyond the facts and logic there are subtle, complex games being played. They engage the mind in both concrete and more fuzzy forms of analysis.

Presidential debates seem to be primarily driven by the desire for news companies to gather quips and “moments” they can repeat and reshuffle endlessly. It’s designed for spectacle rather than intellect. It’s theatre where arguments can’t be developed, only snarked upon. The blame is shared among many, and I don’t dare speculate how much the people’s actual demand for such “entertainment” is responsible.

I mean, the two most famous debate moments in modern American history are Nixon sweating and Quayle getting hit with a stinging comeback. Interesting historical tidbits, but what does it say about the activity? The structure of it reveals the real priorities. Games matter.

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