By Harry Zhang, Johns Hopkins ’17
Theory of Debate: Understanding Win Conditions
In debate, sound strategy is just as important to success as making effective arguments or writing powerful cases. Debating strategically and intelligently is a hallmark of all successful debaters and one of the easiest ways you can gain an advantage over your opponents. Smart strategic decisions can disarm powerful arguments, rescue hopeless situations and set up devastating, round winning rebuttal speeches.
To begin thinking about debate from a strategic perspective, let’s examine the most important question of any competitive game: “how do we win?” When it comes to debate, the short answer is something along the lines of “make arguments”, while the longer answer involves making arguments which are better, more logical, more impactful, delivered more emphatically, etc. than the arguments of your opponents. Given that arguments are the basis of victory and defeat in debate, understanding the ways that different arguments interact and using that knowledge to inform your decisions is the basis of strategy in debate.
Therefore, the question you should always be asking yourself while debating is “how do we win?” This is often not a question with an immediately obvious answer, as depending on the side you’re debating on and the case that is being debated, the way(s) in which you can win are very different. Additionally, because the state of the debate is dynamic and often changes dramatically after each speech, it is critically important to constantly reassess how you’re going to win. Sometimes the answer to that question is as simple as running your opponent over with more numerous and better arguments. However, that won’t always work against better opponents or against more tricky cases. More often than not, there are only a few distinct paths to victory, each of which requires certain arguments on your side to be satisfactorily developed and certain arguments of your opponent to be sufficiently negated. The following are five tips to better understand and exploit your conditions for victory.
Recognize Independent Win Conditions
An independent win condition is an argument that if sufficiently proven, will automatically win the round for the team that made it. The most iconic example of such an argument in American Parliamentary debate is the tight call; regardless of how compelling or persuasive the arguments that a government team makes, the opposition team will still win the round if they are able to win the argument that the case is tight. However, meta specific arguments are not the only arguments that can independently win a round, and many cases have one or more arguments that can win the round by themselves. Often, these arguments will challenge a more fundamental premise of the case that is often ignored entirely within the round (e.g. “all governments are immoral” in response to a case about a certain government action). When debating, it is highly important to be able to identify arguments that can act as independent win conditions, as they can improve your future strategic options and weighting in rebuttal speeches. More importantly, you will be able to more proactively respond to such arguments if they are made by your opponents. A common strategy that you should both seek to use and watch out for is to identify certain arguments as independently capable of winning the round only as a weighing tool in rebuttal speeches, when it cannot be responded to. When made effectively, these arguments are exceptionally powerful because they can be made alongside other arguments (“even if all governments are not immoral, this action is still bad”), but still demand an answer and cannot be mitigated. If you identify an argument capable of independently winning the round, it’s almost always a good idea to advance it alongside your other arguments, it will almost always cost your opponent more time to deal with it and can sometimes allow you to run away with a clean win.
Distinguish Mitigation from Offense
Offense can be defined as proactive arguments as to why your side of the case is correct. This contrasts with mitigatory arguments that only diminishes the importance or impact of an opposing argument (“side government’s plan will create worse outcomes” versus “side government’s plan will only benefit 50% of the people they say it will”). In all cases, it is impossible to win a debate round without meaningful offensive material. Thus, when considering how to win a round, it is very important to consider not only the arguments that have been exchanged, but whether they are offensive or mitigatory. If one or more of your arguments only received mitigatory responses, they have not been answered adequately and can be easily capitalized upon as win conditions. Likewise, it is important that responses to opponent arguments are diverse and do not exclusively consist of mitigatory arguments. Because of the importance of offense, it is generally more tactical to overload on offensive arguments in the leader speeches as opposed to pre-empting opponent arguments, as it allows more time for further offensive arguments to be developed while still preserving the strategic option of pivoting to a more defensive position in the member speech.
Identify Useless Arguments
It is not uncommon for even high level debate rounds to contain many useless arguments – arguments that are so underdeveloped, irrelevant or ineffective that they do not contribute meaningfully to the win conditions of either side. It then becomes a skill of its own to maximize the value of these arguments on your side while efficiently addressing your opponent’s. If you are able to develop a strong understanding for the win conditions of both sides, many tidbits of conventional wisdom can be ignored. Advice such as “don’t drop opponent arguments” don’t apply for example if you identify that your primary line of offense cleanly defeats a premise that is necessary for an opponent line of offense to function. Because meaningful offense is the only important consideration, making arguments isn’t a priori good, nor is dropping arguments a priori bad. Unless an argument will obviously contribute to your victory, it should not be made in favour of greater exposition of useful arguments. There is no excuse for having any arguments in the PMC that do not contribute to the overarching win condition(s) of your case! Conversely, selectively responding to only the important elements of your opponent’s arguments that contribute to their win conditions frees up valuable time to contest actually important arguments or further develop your own.
Just Predict the Future!
Often times, there won’t be a silver bullet argument that instantly wins you the round, and the round will be competitive enough that you can’t bulldoze your way through with superior debate mechanics. In most rounds, both sides will raise several arguments related to the core issues within the round. How the vast majority of these arguments function in debate is to directly contest each other (“inflation is good for the current economy” versus “inflation is bad for the current economy”). Most of the time, several of these pairs of contradictory arguments form the basis for the offensive arguments of both sides, and neither side’s arguments will be directly beating the other’s. It’s at these times that a superior understanding of win conditions can allow you to completely outmanoeuvre your opponents and deliver a round ending rebuttal.
In contentious rounds like these, any amount of unique offense is particularly powerful. If there are arguments available to you that don’t have a direct counterpart to contest it, it can be very valuable in generating unique offense that your opponent can’t match and can often single-handedly win the round when most other arguments reach an impasse. Being able to identify early-on arguments that are unique to your position is often the difference maker in what would be otherwise close rounds.
If any such arguments aren’t available or have been successfully negated by the opponent, the side that is able to more cogently weigh and impact contested arguments will almost certainly emerge victorious. Oftentimes, though the same major issues form the offense of both sides, the two rebuttal speeches will be vastly different due to the two sides choosing to pivot their cases towards the argument that they present as most important and central to the case (and believe themselves to be winning the hardest!). The skill of being able to present certain arguments as more important than others (weighing) and explaining why given arguments matter (impacting) is beyond the scope of this guide, but two important strategic takeaways remain. Firstly is having the foresight to recognize the direction of the debate. If you are able to see that the debate is likely to have many arguments that directly contest each other, then you can formulate a strategy for weighing and impacting your arguments in advance and use your member speech to advance this win condition. If your opponent is unable to do this, the state of the debate prior to rebuttal speeches is highly likely to be favourable to your strategy. Additionally, you should try to predict the strategic decisions of your opponent, and deduce from the arguments that they are making what they anticipate their win conditions to be. This allows you to pre-empt their most powerful lines of argumentation, and proactively choose a strategy that best responds to theirs.
Understand Your Outs
Despite your best efforts, you’ll often be in a losing position heading into rebuttals. Perhaps your advocacy was poorly thought out, large mistakes were made in executing your strategy, or your dear partner simply couldn’t do enough to carry you. Whatever the reason, smart debaters will often be able to convert a losing situation into a winning one, or at the very least give themselves a fighting chance by turning a previously one-sided round into a close one. The worst possible strategy to approach a losing position is to treat it as though you are winning and debate conservatively. Delivering four/five minutes of uninspired, impotent crystallization on arguments you are clearly losing on is the most assured way to guarantee a lost round (and probably subpar speaker points!). If your side only has one or two issues that haven’t been thoroughly routed by your opponents, you should most certainly play to your outs and all-in on those arguments by focusing the vast majority of your time on your remaining offense. By cleverly impacting and weighing your arguments or selling your offense as independently round winning, you make the round competitive and secure your team better speaker points if not an outright victory. This same principle can be applied to all other speeches; if your opponent introduced an unanticipated fact or argument that devastates parts of your case, spend your member speech developing other arguments that can manifest into win conditions instead of trying to respond to it. By constantly re-evaluate your win conditions and playing to your remaining outs as the round progresses, you should never find yourself staring down an unwinnable position.