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Debating Effectively while Maverick

Written by Tim Lewis


            Many of us have had to debate by ourselves for one reason or another: a team member does not show up for a practice debate; a partner gets sick at a tournament; an odd number of students in a camp lab, etc. However, because policy debate is an activity which privileges four person debate, we rarely provide instruction on how to succeed, debate effectively, and continue participation in the learning aspect of the activity when you are on your own debating against a two-person partnership, i.e. ‘debating maverick.’ This blog post will provide you with the knowledge involved in how to make any maverick debate experience meaningful and impactful to your larger participation in the activity. We will discuss ways of preparation, the different choices and strategic decisions you will need to make when you are affirmative and negative, and how to conduct yourself when debating maverick at a tournament.

            Sometimes, we are lucky in our advanced knowledge that a partner will not be available to debate with us—either for a tournament or for a practice debate. When this information comes before the day of the debate, you can begin to think about how you will shift your strategy and argument choices to better support a team with a single person on it. Additionally, this is a positive opportunity to consider what kinds of learning and skill development you want to obtain through this experience—indeed, knowing that you will usually not be allowed to participate in elimination debates should guide you to looking at other yet equal positive outcomes. For some people, this might look like having a positive record (4-2 or better) while others might strive to get a speaker award; in addition, I would like to suggest that focusing on the structural rewards of debating well while maverick obscures a larger opportunity for knowledge acquisition.

            Everyone in the policy debate community has argument preferences and areas for improvement—likewise, we all have had to make compromises with our partners over the arguments we run and strategies that we deploy because of their feedback and perspective. This reality is one that creates a significant opportunity for you when you debate maverick because it gives you total and complete autonomy over the arguments you will utilize in the round. If there is a camp version of a K Aff or a secret file you have been preparing without telling your partner and/or coach that you have always wanted to read, this is your time to do so! The same is true for counterplans, topicality violations, and kritiks (etc.) that you feel could win you some rounds even though others have treated these arguments with (hopefully, a healthy) skepticism. The general point here is that debating by yourself should not be viewed from a lens of disadvantage, but as an opportunity to participate in a unique and generative learning process.

            Other times, though, we do not have a significant amount of time to prepare for debating maverick in this way. Partners are people too and like all of us, they do get sick from time to time. When a partner gets so sick that they cannot continue debating at the tournament, it can always feel disappointing and like the weekend does not matter. This is defeatist logic! We do not go to debate tournaments (or at least we should not) to collect repurposed bowling trophies and plastic medallions; rather, we participate in this aggressive engagement of ideas in order to grow and develop our understandings of the complex ideas that make the world we live in function on a daily basis.

            Regardless of circumstance, there are several basic actions one can take in order to ensure that their debate experience is meaningful. Many of these suggestions involve a focused and careful use of prep time to coordinate argument response and speech preparation, but regardless of how technical these suggestions become, it is crucial to remember that revising one’s mindset will determine how your preparation becomes actualized in practice. That is to say, if you debate maverick with despair, pessimism, and a sense of downtrodden-ness, your negative affect will be communicated to your opponents and the judge and ensure that your arguments are not treated as well at the ethos-level of idea contestation (at a minimum).


Guidance for Debating Maverick when Affirmative

            One of the nice parts about debating maverick when affirmative is that it is likely you know your affirmative better and more coherently than the negative team you are debating against. You should make sure that you have your partner’s 2AC/1AR blocks file and that you have read through it at least once before the tournament began (indeed, you should be reading the 2AC blocks file at least twice a week to assist with 1ARs if you are not the 2A anyways to ensure that you are extending the correct arguments efficiently in the 1AR). Seriously, the simple ability of easily navigating a file that composes your entire response is an essential and often forgotten element when you are proverbially ‘on your own.’ After verifying that you have the tools that you need to complete a 2AC in response to any and all likely negative positions, you should begin thinking about how you are going to manage your time for the 2AC.

            Remember, your team is not going to have the extended time in the form of the 1AC to prepare 2AC blocks on the fly and/or begin to construct a 2AC based on information available on the Wiki. As a result of this, it may not be a bad idea to ask the judge and your opponents before the round begins if they are comfortable with the use of a ‘flex prep’ system for the round. While there may be many different interpretations and manifestations of this idea, the general principle of ‘flex prep’ is an allowance from the judge for the debaters to use their cross examination time (and potentially parts of a speech, although I would definitely not advise this option) to prepare for the next speech. This option can give your 2AC a significant opportunity to cram in some extra minutes of prep if you have few to no questions for the 1NC (and 2NC as well). The most important aspect of this, though, is to make sure that you are asking the other people in the round before you attempt to act in this way as not all judges or debaters agree with the principles of ‘flex prep.’

            As you think about constructing your 2AC, you should remember that it is likely that your opponent is going to try to ‘spread you out’ (i.e. read a large number of off-case position in combination with a series of difficult case arguments in order to force you to simply drop a page due to the amount of arguments in the round). If this happens, you have to be quick in your adaptation and develop a plan of action on how to put the block in as troubled of a position as possible. Punish them for reading that many positions: Throw theory arguments and multiple permutations on each advocacy page, link turn and impact turn every DA, pre-empt block impact calculus arguments (turns case, error replication, fiat is illusory), and make arguments on topicality shells that impact the solvency of counterplans and/or theoretical legitimacy of those counterplans. While this set of arguments itself may not be enough to completely destabilize an over-confident negative team, it will give the people in the round an impression that you are aware of and capable in debating well and with vigor.  

            When you are prepping for the 2AC during the 1NC, you should work hard to make sure that you are sending the correct blocks to your speech document. Even though you should have read the 2AC blocks file, it will be unlikely that you know how to navigate it with ease—always double check, even if it takes ten more seconds of prep. Ideally, you will not need any prep for the 2AC (but if you do, use it sparingly)—you should leave the 2AR with at least four minutes of prep in order to fully compose your best path for victory. When you are prepping for the 1AR, it is essential that you know the arguments that you want to go for in the 2AR in order to win the debate. As the block is happening, you should focus on those arguments in your speech doc preparation and make sure that all of the one-hit-KO arguments are covered in order to prevent the judge from choosing the easy way to vote against you.


Guidance for Debating Maverick when Negative

On the affirmative, you have a strong and fortified castle-like position in your aff since you have likely been reading it for an extended time and know what a lot of the negative strategies against it are and how to respond to them in ways consistent with the routes of success that you and your partner have agreed upon. However, when you are negative, uncertainty is a much stronger component to the factors that you will need to account for in order to produce a substantial and engaging negation to your opponent’s advocacy statement because of the high level of variance and specificity that comes with being negative. If you are normally a 2N, this might not be too big of an obstacle because you will likely have one or two core generic positions that you feel comfortable going for in any debate. Just remember that it is important to prevent yourself from getting spread-out by a well prepared 2AC because you do not have an endearing and charismatic 1N to give the arguments you do not want to deal with and/or forget to answer.

As such, I would heavily recommend that maverick debaters on the negative keep the debate small and intimate. One easy way to do this is to read a single kritik and read your best series of links and impact defense on case in order to generate external offense for the kritik that you can weigh as legitimacy for alt solvency and uniqueness for the thesis of the K links as they are applied to the plan, representations, epistemology, and ontology of the affirmative. If you have a counterplan that works well with the politics DA and impact defense, then go for it as well! The general point on strategy that I want to convey, here, is that a small, but precise negative strategy is much more manageable to wield when you are debating by yourself. Going for arguments that you enjoy and/or are comfortable with can help close the gap in terms of team composition—take the risk of trusting yourself and you will rarely end up in a worse-off position.

I do think that debaters who are maverick when negative have to be a bit more considerate of their prep time than when they are affirmative because of the back-to-back speeches in the block. Normally, the 1N gets the entire 2NC to prep their speech in addition to the prep time that the 2NC takes after the 2AC (if any), so when one person is performing all of those roles, it becomes much more difficult to plot out the argument interaction in any given round. I would not advise maverick debaters who are on the negative to take prep for the 1NC unless their opponent has broken a new argument against them or if cross-ex of the 1AC revealed such a glaring strength or vulnerability that the entire negative strategy has to be reformed and changed. More so, I think that maverick debaters on the negative should only take prep time for the 2NC and the 2NR because taking prep-time after you have just given an eight-minute speech and had a three-minute cross-examination can be stressful and exhausting. Beyond that, if you are thinking about the preparation that will go into setting up your next speech, you will likely not be devoting all of your focus and attention to the 2NC which could lead you to potentially drop key arguments.

As you get ready for the 2NR, pay close attention to the ways in which your flow of the 1AR does or does not correspond with the arguments that you made in your block speech docs. Since you will not have a partner to backflow from (i.e. flowing your 2NC from the flows that are not given to the 1NR during the 1NR (in addition to flowing the 1NR)), you have to give extra and additional care to knowing what arguments you have made and how (in)adequate the affirmative’s response were in the 1AR. If you are not usually a 2N, it is important to remember that when giving a 2NR, it is not just your job to explain to the judge why the plan/advocacy/etc. of the affirmative is a bad idea, but also why the status quo, counterplan, alternative, etc. are better ideas in spite of how bad of an idea the affirmative is structured.




Debating maverick can be very tricky, disheartening, and stressful. I never felt that there was a strong appreciate from judges or my opponents about how all of those feelings factor into the experience of debating maverick, which is why I want to make sure that you who are reading this knows that folks do know what you are feeling and going through. I think it is important that our community remember the courage and bravery that goes into debating at a tournament maverick—as judges we can give more effective and intentional feedback, as debaters we can be friendlier and less concerned with the absolute seconds of prep time, and as coaches we can work with our students to produce negative strategies against maverick affirmative debaters that are not designed to entirely exploit the fact that a full team could not be present for the round.

It also never hurts to throw some humor into your speeches in order to boost your debate ethos and improve your speaker points and persuasiveness. A few lines you could try out include, ‘That 2NR was so light on offense that I don’t even need a partner to give the 2AR,’ ‘Even with two people, they still couldn’t figure out that an answer to this kritik is ‘State Good,’ or ‘I’m going to give this speech with one arm tied behind my back because that is how easy the two of them have made it for me’, etc. Remember, though, to not use humor as a weapon to implicate your opponents’ humanity or participation in the activity (i.e. do not be cruel or attack a part of someone’s identities). Lastly, there are always going to be nuances that individuals have from their experiences that cannot be covered in this article—please feel free to share them in the comments section below so that we can have a productive conversation about the intricacies of debating maverick!

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