Defending The Affirmative: Tips For Answering Multi-Plank Counterplans

An increasingly popular negative strategy in high school debate over the past two seasons has centered around the multi-plank counterplan. Most often associated with Michigan State University at the college level, the multi-plank counterplan is presented as a single off-case position that includes two or more “planks” in its text. Instead of presenting multiple counterplans as separate off-case positions, in other words, the multi-plank counterplan presents them as a single argument.

Typically composed of multiple policy options aimed at solving all or part of the affirmative case while avoiding a disadvantage that links only to the plan but not the counterplan, the multi-plank counterplan is now commonplace in high-level debates and has become a potent weapon in the negative’s strategic arsenal.

Affirmative teams that fail to adapt and keep up with this negative innovation are putting themselves behind the proverbial eight ball. This article is an attempt to help affirmative debaters effectively respond to the multi-plank counterplan and construct a winning strategy to defeat it.

Approach Cross-Examination Strategically

The cross-examination of the 1NC is particularly important in debates involving a multi-plank counterplan.

First, the disposition of the counterplan needs to be established. Is the counterplan a single position? Or can each individual plank (or combinations thereof) be extended or discarded? Asking for the disposition of the counterplan is not enough; “conditional” or “dispositional” needs to be clarified further for the affirmative to intelligently choose the best strategy for responding to the specific multi-plank counterplan against which they are debating.

Second, the net-benefit(s) to the counterplan need to be clarified and often contested. Is the politics disadvantage the only net-benefit to the counterplan? If so, why does the plan but not the counterplan trigger the link? The affirmative can get a lot of mileage out of a good cross-examination on the veracity of the negative’s intended link distinction.

Third, the solvency of the counterplan should often be questioned. What does a given plank do and why does that action solve the internal link(s) to the affirmative’s advantage(s)? Because multi-plank counterplans often include a “plank of the week” to solve common affirmative impacts, it is likely that the first negative will have little familiarity with the mechanics of the counterplan and the details of its solvency claims. In this way, a good cross-examination of a 1NC on a multi-plank counterplan will mirror a good cross-examination of a 1AC—setting up evidence indicts, investigating missing internal links, highlighting inconsistencies in context, etc. are all effective techniques.

Develop A Persuasive Theoretical Objection

Judges differ greatly in their opinions of multi-plank counterplans: some judges find them inelegant and absurd while others celebrate their strategic value for the negative. With the possible exception of the extreme neg flex fringe, however, the vast majority of judges will be amenable to well-articulated theoretical objections tailored to the specific multi-plank counterplan being debated.

There are two basic approaches that the affirmative should take depending on the specific situation.

  1. Develop a theoretical objection to the disposition of the counterplan. Instead of just repeating the same “conditionality bad” objection that could be made in any debate, affirmatives should specifically object to the multi-plank nature of conditionality. If the negative argues that each plank of their counterplan is conditional, the 2AC should include a specific theoretical objection to this practice (preferably one that has been prepared in advance and which makes a complete, developed argument).

  2. Develop a theoretical objection to the multi-agent nature of the counterplan. Multi-plank counterplans often include planks advocating action by several different actors: the federal government, one or more specific branches of the federal government, the 50-states and U.S. territories, the government of another nation, an international organization, etc. A persuasive theoretical objection can be levied against this practice.

Another theoretical objection that is sometimes levied against multi-plank counterplans is based on the absence of a single solvency advocate for all of its component parts. Because the counterplan as a whole is not advocated in the literature about the plan (or about the affirmative’s harm area in general), affirmatives argue that they cannot be expected to have prepared a defense against it. While this argument may have some merit, it is almost universally considered unpersuasive when each component plank of the negative’s counterplan is supported by evidence from a solvency advocate. While affirmative debaters can certainly make this argument, it tends to be perceived more as a “whine” than as a serious theoretical objection.

When extending a theoretical objection against a multi-plank counterplan in the 1AR, it is important to tailor one’s responses to the specific context of the round. While the reasons that conditionality is bad will certainly apply to a conditional multi-plank counterplan, they are not the best arguments the affirmative can advance—at least not without adapting them to highlight the problems inherent in multi-plank counterplans.

In addition, it is important to answer the inevitable negative counter-interpretation—whether it is “the neg gets one conditional multi-plank counterplan” or “the neg gets a conditional multi-plank counterplan as long as each plank has a solvency advocate” or something else, the negative will undoubtedly attempt to frame their multi-plank counterplan as eminently reasonable and not at all like the unreasonable multi-plank counterplans against which the negative is mounting an objection.

While many judges would scoff at a 1NC that included six conditional advantage counterplans, the same intuition is not as strong when the six conditional advantage counterplans are presented as a single conditional multi-plank counterplan. The key to winning a theoretical objection, then, is to deconstruct the multi-plank counterplan into its component parts and thereby force the judge to consider the argument not as “one conditional multi-plank counterplan” (perceptually reasonable) but as “six conditional counterplans” (perceptually unreasonable).

Use Permutations Strategically

It is imperative that the affirmative advance a series of permutations that can account for each plank of the counterplan. Too often, affirmative teams only offer a permutation to “do both,” inclusive of the plan and all planks of the counterplan. This is not strategic because it leaves the affirmative without the ability to develop a disadvantage to one plank of the counterplan while still capturing the benefits of the other planks. When the only permutation offered is “do both,” the negative can argue that the permutation links to the affirmative’s plank-specific disadvantage and therefore is not net-beneficial.

Instead of advancing only a “do both” permutation, the affirmative should present a “multi-plank do both” permutation: “do the plan and any/every combination of counterplan planks”. While parishioners in the church of neg flex might find this intuitively unfair, it is no different than advancing a permutation to “do both” on each of the independent planks of the counterplan. The benefit to this phrasing of the permutation, of course, is that it does not require the affirmative to invest valuable speech time meticulously permuting each plank of the counterplan one-by-one.

The “multi-plank do both” permutation can be a powerful tool when combined with offensive arguments against one or more planks of the counterplan. By permuting any/every component plank of the counterplan, the affirmative has enabled themselves to advocate the enactment of the plan and the plank(s) of the counterplan for which they do not have an offensive argument but not the plank(s) of the counterplan for which they do have offense. The negative is then forced to make one of three decisions: extend the counterplan as a whole and outweigh the disadvantage to one or more of its planks, kick the counterplan as a whole, or kick only the plank(s) of the counterplan against which the affirmative has made an offensive argument. Regardless of the choice that they make, the affirmative is in good shape—far better shape than they would have been had they only made a “do both” permutation in the 2AC.

Decide When To Read Disadvantages to a Plank

If each plank of the counterplan is independently conditional, the negative has the flexibility to kick out of the plank(s) against which the affirmative has read a disadvantage. As a result, disadvantages to a single plank should not be the core of the affirmative’s strategy if the negative is presenting their counterplan in this way. Unless the affirmative has strong disadvantages against all of the planks of the counterplan, it is far better in these instances to extend a theoretical objection to multi-plank conditionality. If the goal is to win this theoretical objection, reading a disadvantage to one plank of the counterplan can be helpful as a demonstration of the nefariousness of multi-plank conditionality: when the affirmative presents a disadvantage to one part of the counterplan, the negative can simply ignore it by kicking out of that portion of the counterplan.

If the counterplan as a whole is conditional but not its independent components, then disadvantages to individual planks can be much more valuable. Even if the affirmative only has a disadvantage to two of the negative’s five planks, the “multi-plank do both” permutation can help frame these arguments in a way that they can be favorably weighed against the negative’s net-benefit. Forcing the negative to choose between kicking the whole counterplan or outweighing the disadvantage(s) to the counterplan with the net-benefit puts the affirmative in a strong position entering the final rebuttals.

Contest Whether The Politics Disadvantage Is A Net-Benefit

The most popular net-benefit to multi-plank counterplans is the politics disadvantage. When deploying this strategy, the negative will read a specific piece of link evidence on the politics disadvantage in the 1NC that applies to the plan but not to any of the planks of the counterplan. The problem, of course, is that the absence of a link to the planks of the counterplan does not mean that there isn’t a link; the affirmative just needs to tease it out.

Ideally, the affirmative should be prepared with link evidence that can be applied to each plank of the counterplan. While this might seem like an impossible task—after all, the hallmark of the multi-plank counterplan is in many ways its unpredictability—it is easier than most teams seem to think.

First, the affirmative should prepare a politics link to every plank of every advantage counterplan that they have debated during the season. While negative teams often try to stay ahead of the curve by breaking new planks, the reality is that there are a relatively small number of advantage counterplans that an affirmative will debate over-and-over again. There is no excuse for not having a good politics link for each of these counterplans/planks.

Second, the affirmative should prepare links to each of the relevant counterplans produced by summer institutes or disclosed on the NDCA wiki. Even if each specific counterplan is not something a team debates, chances are good that the evidence they have gathered will have utility against other advantage counterplans in the future.

Third, affirmative teams should organize and store copies of politics link backfiles on their computers so that cards can easily be located and read. Many advantage counterplans are recycled from previous topics; this only makes sense—why write a whole new counterplan when the comprehensive research a squad completed in a previous season can be easily retooled? While these recycled counterplans may seem new to current debaters, rest assured that many of them have been exhaustively researched in previous seasons and take advantage of that research as part of your preparation.

Finally, the affirmative should collect a set of generic link arguments that are broadly applicable against a wide variety of policy proposals. When all else fails and the negative reads a plank against which no specific link was researched, the 2AC can fall back on these generic arguments to establish a link. Evidence making arguments like “legislation saps political capital,” “every new initiative distracts focus,” “spending money is controversial,” etc. can be incredibly valuable parts of the affirmative’s politics toolbox.

In addition to preparing links of their own, affirmative teams should capitalize when the negative reads links in the 2NC or 1NR that are not as specific to the plan as the link presented in the 1NC. While the negative’s first-line card might be very specific to the plan, there is a good chance that their second-line cards are not. If this is the case, the 1AR should connect the planks of the counterplan to the warrants in the negative’s new link evidence. Few teams have the argumentative discipline and high-quality evidence necessary to sustain a hyper-specific link to the politics disadvantage through the negative block; when they fall back onto more generic link claims, the affirmative should take advantage and capitalize.

Whether the planks of the counterplan link to the politics disadvantage is important, but perhaps more so is the extent to which a difference in the relative links to the plan and the counterplan is important. If both the plan and the counterplan link to the disadvantage but the plan links slightly more, should the judge vote negative because there is a greater risk of the disadvantage? In too many debates, the affirmative allows the negative to characterize the debate in this way and therefore earn the ballot even when both the plan and the counterplan link to the disadvantage. Instead of ceding this important framing issue to the negative, affirmatives should argue that relative differences in the magnitude of the link are irrelevant so long as both links are sufficient to overcome uniqueness.

For example, the negative might argue that a climate change bill will pass the Senate in the status quo but that the plan will derail this initiative by sapping the President’s political capital. If the affirmative wins that the counterplan saps the President’s political capital enough to derail the climate change bill, it doesn’t matter if the plan saps the President’s political capital more—the only question is whether the link is strong enough to overcome uniqueness. Once that threshold is crossed, the relative strength of the link to the plan versus the link to the counterplan is irrelevant.

Know When To Give Up Hope Of Winning A Solvency Deficit

The most common response made by the 2AC to a multi-plank counterplan is a solvency deficit argument: the counterplan does not solve the case, it is argued, because the plan is key. This explanation is rarely comparative; most often, the 2A simply repeats the thesis of their advantage(s) while asserting that the plan is therefore “key”. This is not enough. The fact that the plan might be one way of capturing an advantage does not mean that it is the only way. Unless the affirmative combines their “plan solves the advantage” claims with an explanation for why the counterplan does not solve the advantage, they have not presented a complete argument; “the counterplan does not solve because the plan does solve,” while common, does not meet this threshold.

Ideally, the affirmative will be prepared with evidence that specifically contests the ability of each plank of the counterplan to solve. Realistically, this is not always the case: sometimes the negative catches a team off-guard and leaves them with no substantive responses to one or more planks of the counterplan. The affirmative should do their best not to allow this to happen, but it is not the end of the world. The key to overcoming this kind of situation is to acknowledge early on that winning a meaningful solvency deficit for one or more advantages will be difficult if not impossible.

Instead of wasting valuable speech time repeating losing solvency deficit arguments, affirmatives should focus on beating the net-benefit or on winning a theoretical objection. In the end, even a well-articulated solvency deficit is only helpful when the affirmative can mitigate the impact of the net-benefit; when the affirmative’s solvency deficit explanation is weak, decisively defeating the net-benefit becomes even more imperative.

Knowing when to commit to winning a meaningful solvency deficit and when to abandon ship in favor of other arguments is vital. Teams whose strategy against a multi-plank counterplan is always centered on winning a solvency deficit are unnecessarily constraining their options and making things easy on the negative.


The multi-plank counterplan can be a powerful tool in the negative’s strategic arsenal. By presenting several advantage counterplans that attempt to solve the case, these positions can make it very difficult for the affirmative to win a credible solvency deficit that is not outweighed by even a minimal risk of a net-benefit. In order to catch up with this negative innovation, affirmative teams need to improve the quality of their responses and strategically rethink the way they approach multi-plank counterplans.

12 thoughts on “Defending The Affirmative: Tips For Answering Multi-Plank Counterplans

  1. Scott Phillips Post author


    One thing not explicitly addressed in your post, and what for me is the real crotch punch of multi plank CPs, is when planks are used explicitly to pre-empt affirmative solvency arguments. So for example, when debating MSU on the Europe topic they would run the Court CP vs TNW's. Our disad to the court was that court cases involving nuclear weapons would force the government to disclose sensitive information during discovery that would undermine deterrence. So they just added a line to the CP text that said "courts will not require disclosure of sensitive information". Similarly many teams do this with the states CP to get out of solvency arguments by waving conflicting laws, devolving authority etc. These planks rarely if ever have solvency advocates.

  2. Whit

    @Scott Phillips
    I’ve ranted before about how I feel that these arguments are tantamount to neg intrinsicness arguments. I think arguments about why a.) they are illegitimate for this reason or b.) they would justify aff intrinsicness args are persuasive.

    …also some debaters don’t realize how dumb these spikes are. For instance, if a team writes in that their lopez cp will be a “Narrow Ruling,” then they don’t get to claim a federalism net benefit. The purpose of making it ‘narrow’ is to avoid precedent debates, therefore net benefits based off of precedent don’t link.

    …on an unrelated note:

    Most annoying cross-x exchange ever:

    AFF: "What are the net benefits to this cp that does 50 different things?"
    NEG: "Politics."
    AFF: "Why?"
    NEG: "Cause we only read a specific link to your aff."

    Debaters, please note that evidence is unnecessary to win that a CP would link to politics. A logical warranted argument about why the CP would be as (if not more) likely to link to politics is all that is required to dispatch with this nonsense.

    The threshold for whether politics is a net benefit to the CP is a piece of evidence that is comparative the plan (ideally) or two separate pieces of evidence that make a distinction (if you're lazy…or bad at research).

  3. Jason Wright

    I came here to say what whit said – this debate happened about 50000 times on the Africa topic, particularly with soft power CPs like "ratify the ICC/Kyoto". The affirmative let the neg win a politics net-benefit simply because the only link evidence read was the 1nc card talking about foreign aid – that is absurd and letting the neg get away with that should be a crime punishable by death.

  4. Kevin Hirn

    Really good post Bill – that idea of a comprehensive politics links to adv cp file is a really good idea that I probably wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

  5. Roy Levkovitz Post author

    This post is good with regards to the question of beating the politics disad as said net benefit to the cp. But I feel like the more strategic negative team uses this multi-plank cp as a way to solve for adv 1, 2, and 4 and impact turn advantage 3. While the 1nc might try to make args about why politics is a net benefit the real net benefit comes from the impact turns.

    In this instance the aff needs to make sure to do 2 things
    1.) make sure you have a good defense of the adv
    2.) obviously advance the theory args

    Also if in the instance the neg makes the arg in the 1nc that "yeah its a net benefit too" but you can tell the impact turns is their "A level offense" I would try to make the negative's life difficult by straight turning politics in the 2ac (assuming I was confident I could win either impact turns to the da or the U/LT)

  6. John Smith

    It seems like the issue is more with the topic than with the concept of the multi-plank CP. For example, on last year's topic, there were a bunch of disads based off of increasing alternative energy. If an aff had a heg advantage and an econ advantage, you could pretty easily CP out of those two advantages and read energy Disads and internal link defense on the advantages based on energy. This topic sucks-yes-politics is the only disad really, so ya, the CP will almost always link to the NB.
    Two other things-
    1) if a team reads a popular card to answer CP links to politics, that means that perm do both shields the link to politics is what is generally said. I kind of disagree with that-magnitude of the link really matters in this instance. IF the aff is immigration and you read a card saying Highway funding is popular, the CP will be spun as immigration policy, the people who hate immigration are very rarely going to be like "wow the amazing Highway funding will make me forget my constitutents will kill me for easing immigration restrictions". ARguably the perm would be worse than the plan alone b/c Obama is percieved as trying to hide an unpopular bil behind a popular one.
    2) Is your only difference between reading 5 CPs individually conditionally and 1 CP where each of hte 5 planks can be kicked individually conditionally that "perceptioanlly judges will disagree theortetically more" with the former than the latter? That seems very hard to quantify in-round, and I think the arg "we would have just read each CP individually" is fairly compelling.

  7. Nathan Ketsdever

    I'll take issue with Scott on this issue:

    >>>Similarly many teams do this with the states CP to get out of solvency arguments by waving conflicting laws, devolving authority etc. These planks rarely if ever have solvency advocates.

    These examples seem to be enabling mechanisms for the counterplan. It seems if they have a solvency advocate for their central action–those same authors would probably advocate the later.

    I don't see any problem with a mosaic-style solvency advocacy. We give 90% of affirmatives that latitude–it seems we should give them to negs. as well.

    I still agree with 95% of what Scott points out.

  8. Anonymous

    >>> I don’t see any problem with a mosaic-style solvency advocacy. We give 90% of affirmatives that latitude–it seems we should give them to negs. as well.

    The problem is, affirmatives are limited to the topic, but negatives aren't, which gives them an insane amount of latitude to dodge affirmative answers to the cp.

  9. David Petersen

    1) Be ready to run and gun on ur advs for the teams that cp out of 2/3 and impact turn 3
    2) Be ready to straight turn neg generics, it seems to be a consistent thought that the negative runs to these types of counterplans because it requiers less work (they are putting less work in on the affirmative and more on the advantage) if they did put more work into it they would find a sweet PIC/D/A/better way to do the aff in the lit. This leads me to believe you should be able to beat them on a specific link set of links turn(s) against their link on their politics d/a. With more and more camps putting out giant advantage counterplan files that cover most of the core advantages going for O on the nb is a win.

  10. Melvin Washington

    Bill: I'm still trying to understand the concept of the multiplank perm do both. Is "any/every combination" intended to be inherently exclusive of some planks? If not, what is the utility of offense on specific planks in the context of the permutation? (Assuming that offense also links to the permutation since it includes the contested plank as apart of one of those combinations).

  11. Ross

    @Melvin Washington
    One point of perming "any/every combination" is so that you have a perm that makes sense when the neg starts kicking planks. It also allows you to turn any plank and claim the perm that excludes that plank has the turns as a net benefit.

  12. Bill Batterman Post author

    Yep. So for example:

    Plan: extend EITC—solves the economy.

    CP: end the minimum wage, end the corporate tax, increase tax credits for businesses—solves the economy.

    If the aff reads a disadvantage to ending the minimum wage in the 2AC, it is not a net-benefit to "permute: do both" because that permutation includes ending the minimum wage. In that situation, the neg can weigh the advantages of ending the corporate tax and increasing tax credits for business against the disadvantages of ending the minimum wage.

    If the aff has a multi-plank permutation, however, they can make those latter two CP planks irrelevant: the permutation in this case would be to extend the EITC, end the corporate tax, and increase tax credits for businesses. When comparing the permutation to the CP alone, the relevant differences are (a) EITC and (b) minimum wage. As a result, the disadvantage to ending the minimum wage is a reason to prefer the permutation to the CP alone.

    The multi-plank permutation gives the aff more flexibility in terms of their ability to generate offense against the CP.

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