Making it to the Dubs

A former lab student asks


” We do pretty well at regional tournaments, but every time we go to an octos bid we either go 3-3 or miss on points- we did that all alst year. how do we break through that barrier/get the rep we need to be consistently good?”


This seems to be a pretty common frustration. Looking at greenhill results (not exact because tabroom is tabroom/awful) it looks like there were approx 30 teams who were 3-3, which is a huge number of people who’s getting to the elims just requires winning 1 more ballot (and yes, points).


So this series of articles is going to talk about some of the things I have noticed that differentiate teams who do make it vs those who don’t.


At the outset, obviously all of these teams do not share a singular problem- i.e. many of them are good at X but bad at Y, whereas other teams in that group are good at Y and bad at X. Furthermore, some teams have 1 big problem- flowing- whereas other teams have that covered but have lots of little problems. I get it- you are all beautiful and unique snowflakes and there are way too many areas where advice could be given for this to be comprehensive. So I plan to talk about 5 things


-evidence comparison

-argument flexibility/diversity

-card cutting/research




These 5 topics could again be near infinitely sub-divided. But what I want/hope that you will learn is that even though debate is complicated and there are a lot of moving parts, some of those parts are more important than others- and if you focus on improving those important parts, being good at them will make up for a lot of other problems.


As an example, just think about the 1NC. If generally every 1NC you assemble contains a double turn, then learning about strategy/avoiding that will be a huge improvement for you. That is an obvious self-inflicted wound. Is this the kind of problem these 3-3 teams are having? Probably not- its pretty obvious to not double turn yourself. However, there are many other things that seem “obvious” to a team that clears all the time that do not seem obvious to teams that go 3-3. Part of moving from 3-3 to clearing is learning what you are missing, and being alert to it in the future.


Evidence comparison is a great example of this. Ask any debater, “do you do evidence comparison” and probably close to 100% will say “yes of course, how could you not do that”. If you then looked at their speeches you would see wildly different arguments all being put under the banner of “evidence comparison”. Let’s first look at a continuum of what can constitute evidence comparison.

-you could have none

-you could have superficial/poorly warranted comparisons like “our card is most qualified” without explanation or reference to a competing card

-you can have basically competent evidence comparison- it ticks all the right boxes but it doesn’t WOW anyone

-you can have great evidence comparison- insightful, comparative, relevant to the debate- the gold standard

-you can have way too much evidence comparison- where it goes on to the point of crowding out other arguments


Again, this could be further subdivided/made more complicated than 5 reference points, but lets keep it simple.


So, where do you fall on this spectrum? For most of you its probably step 2 or 3 (though for some- especially struggling K debaters, it may be step 5- spending too much time on evidence and not enough time on other things). So to start you need an honest assessment of where you are at (judges/coaches can help you here… even your partner is probably more than willing to explain all your flaws to you).


Once you figure out where you are, then you need to know how to get to where you want to be-step 4. I have written before about how it is hard to just start doing everything right, you need to work on incremental improvement/small chunking new /better ways of doing things into your overall “act”. So lets break this down in “steps”


Moving from 1-2

If you currently give no evidence comparison congrats on getting to 3-3 without it! That isn’t sarcasm, if you are consistently going 3-3 and not doing any evidence comparison you must be killing it in other areas. Ironically, this means that for you it might actually be easier to get from 3-3 to clearing as adding just a sprinkling of evidence comparison will probably yield massive results.

So , how do you start working in basic evidence comparison? Well think about what speeches you give and set a goal. So for example if you are the 1A, you aren’t going to be doing evidence comparison in the 1AC, so really we are only talking about the 1AR, already a time pressured speech. So how much ev comparison would you want to add in the 1AR starting from zero? Well obviously it will depend on the debate, but I think 4 is a good starting number- you should try and identify 4 places where there is evidence being read on each side and make a comparison explaining why you should win.


Let’s say the block extended

-base disad

-parole CP




This could be as simplistic as “1 each”, or it could be “We are kicking the case and impact turning the base disad” so all 4 comparisons will be there. It may be that the debate on the parole CP was only about theory- no comparison to be done there. So with those 4 issues you have a lot of room to pick and chose, its only important that you do. At first you may pick incorrectly frequently- but picking your spots is part of the skill of evidence comparison- you need to know where to do it. So even if you fail at first and get an RFD that is like “evidence comparison wasn’t important here” it’s not a big deal, you are working toward a more long term goal.


The 2AR/2NR probably have more evidence comparisons than any other speeches. This is not always good, as the negative for example should be doing a lot of this work in the block, but its important to understand WHY these speeches do better when they have lots of comparison, and more broadly why evidence comparison in the abstract will help you win.


After the round ends the judge has to make ” a decision”, but really they have to make dozens of small decisions that then make up THE decision. What do I mean? Well say the 2NR goes for parole and the base DA and the 2AR goes for

-base DA immoral

-base support resilient

-indefinite parole illegit theory

-perm do the CP

-solvency deficit


That is actually quite a bit for the 2AR to go for and win it all (or even any of it given time pressure) . Because the 2AR is so big comparisons/argument resolution will suffer. So what the judge is doing after the round is going through each of these issues and trying to decide who won it and why.

Most judges when they do this find that often arguments in the debate are hard to resolve. Team A reads a card that says “No Warming” because of X, and Team B reads a card that says “yes warming” because of Y. What is a judge to do? At the end of most debates there are many issues like this that invite “subjective judge intervention” as judges have to decide how to resolve disparate arguments when debaters didn’t do that work.


This results in many “split” decisions as judges use different processes to decide how to resolve each of these conundrums. The more conundrums the less likely you will get a unanimous decision. Or, to use debater talk, the more likely you get “screwed” in prelims. It’s quite possible if you had a 100 judge panel you would have actually won on a 99-1 and that judge who voted against you really is a bad judge, but you didn’t have that panel so you didn’t win that way. You have to play the hand you are dealt- and if you are leaving multiple important issues unresolved you don’t get to complain about judges. Judges are outside of your control, what you do is INSIDE of your control, so focusing on that is generally much better.


So think about what speches you give, think about an appropriate number of comparisons, and then start practicing picking your spots and doing them.


Moving from 2-3


The biggest issue for debaters here is being COMPARATIVE. I.E you can’t just say “smith is a professor at haaaaaaaaaarvaaaaaaaaaaard so we win”. Most likely the other side has a card that has some quals as well, do you really want to stake the debate on harvard vs yale?


So to be comparative you need to go deeper to dream within a dream territory. We can break this down into 3 steps

  1. Identify a disparity between the two cards
  2. figure out why your side of that is good
  3. figure out why there side is bad


Let’s look at an example- heg good/bad


Aff reads a card from Zalmay Khalilzhad arguing heg is good and the neg reads a card from Christopher Layne arguing heg is bad

Take a minute and read about each author. Think about what comparisons you could make if you were aff/neg.


What did you come up with?


For the heg good side an obvious disparity is work history- one has extensive experience working for the government in fopo, the other is largely an academic (note: this could also be flipped if you wanted to take a more K angle). So the aff would want to say that this experience made their card better.


For the neg, you can look at their track record of various predictions in the past. While neither has a perfect record, I think most 3rd parties would agree the last 20 years has gone more according to Layne’s defensive realism than Khalilzad’s neoconservativism.


These distinctions are meaningful, whereas their competing academic pedigrees are more of a wash.


Moving from 3-4


The key thing here is being able to explain/frame why your comparison is dispositiv- ie why it should trump other considerations. Let’s say the debate is about whether or not global warming is real. Here the neg reads an unbelievably power worded card about how global warming is fake. The aff reads a way more moderate card on why it is real. Here evidence comparison can be important as your average judge just reading the cards may decide to emphasize the fiery rhetoric of some unqualified shell answer man over the careful, rigorous science of a… scientist.


So its not enough to just compare, you then need to explain why that comparison wins this issue for you.


Most people say something like “your ev is biased by fossil fuel industry money” and then move on. This is sufficient for some, but not for many. A fully impacted argument would look more like


“Fossil fuel money taints their research- i can’t be taken at face value because it isn’t disinterested. They will only give money to the loudest, most over the top skeptics which artificially inflates negative evidence quality. Prefer moderate aff evidence that has gone through rigorous review”


Even that is a little short, but hopefully you get the idea.


Another way you may need to work this is when competing comparisons are at play- the inception snow level. So say in the 2NR the neg said “prefer neg uniqueness on recency” and it was in fact true that your card is older. Now you need to

-pick a different criteria that your card wins on

-explain why you win that

-explain why that is more important than recency


Let’s say the issue in question is the base DA. Your uniqueness card is a week old, but from the aww inspiring 538 (which for most judges you don’t even need to do comparison because the night is dark and only Nate Silver can save us from the terrors) and the neg read a card from today from fox news. How would you argue this quality vs recency comparison? You could say something like


“fox news is a propaganda mill, they re-publish the same article every day about how base support is high because they have a financial interest in that narrative. The neg needs to prove a meaningful political event transpired in the time between our card and theirs or you should presume the postdate doesn’t matter and defer to more neutral evaluators at 538”.





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