A Guide To Affirmative Strategy vs. Advantage Counterplans

In early 2010, I offered suggestions for how affirmatives can answer multi-plank advantage counterplans. Massive multi-plank counterplans were first popularized during that era; they were typically paired with a politics DA net-benefit. At the time, the disposition of planks was a relatively new controversy: negatives would sometimes propose a counterplan with ten or twelve (or more) planks, each independently conditional. This predictably led to many theory gripes.

In retrospect, my advice did not age particularly well. I omitted important aspects of affirmative strategy versus advantage counterplans; my focus was too much on the “multi-plank” part and not enough on the “advantage counterplan” part. This is understandable: while advantage counterplans were “old hat” and already well-understood by that time, the multi-plank part was novel and strategically provocative. While there is still some useful advice in that post, it might lead contemporary students astray.

As a corrective, this post will outline the basics of affirmative strategy against advantage counterplans — whether single-plank or massive multi-plank. My goal is to provide a comprehensive guide that students can use as a resource when formulating their responses to advantage counterplan-based strategies.

Advantage Counterplans: Background/Basics

Roger Solt defines advantage counterplans as the type of counterplan that attempts “to reduce the affirmative advantage. Such counterplans, which have largely replaced the traditional minor repair, are now frequently applied directly to the affirmative case, in effect as an inherency argument.” In other words, advantage counterplans are a version of case defense: their purpose is to disprove that the affirmative’s plan is necessary to capture the advantage.

As Solt notes, this type of negative argument has existed for as long as there have been policy debates. Before counterplans became common, negative teams would introduce these arguments as inherency takeouts or minor repairs; their purpose was to prove that a non-resolutional action could effectively solve the affirmative’s harm(s).

Eventually, these arguments became more formalized. Instead of merely suggesting the possibility of other solutions, negatives presented a specific counterplan text and supporting evidence to prove its desirability or effectiveness. In a 1981 JAFA article, Louis Kaplow argues that these differences are semantic rather than substantive:

B. Inherency and Fiat

The concept of fiat is important in understanding counterplans. Fiat derives from the term “should” in the resolution. This construct allows debate to focus on what should be done without being led astray by concerns about whether the resolution ever would be adopted. Thus fiat, in the context of debate, is in fact an agreement on the relevant issues. Of course, elements of what certain agents would do is very relevant in discussing issues of causality.15 [Footnote 15: See Zarefsky, “The Role of Causal Argument in Policy Controversies.”] However, the resolution suspends these considerations for a limited group of agents. Often, these are the agents of the federal government.

Unfortunately, debate practice often misconstrues fiat as it applies to the negative position. Whether the negative’s proposal would be adopted is no more relevant to what should be done than whether the affirmative’s would be adopted. For example, imagine a topic calling for federal enhancement of alternative energy sources. The negative could respond to the alleged harms from fossil fuel pollution by defending the alternative of strengthened pollution controls by making a variety of statements: “Stronger controls exist.” “Why not use stronger controls?” “Use stronger pollution controls.” “Minor repair with strengthening pollution controls.” or “We counterplan with stronger pollution controls.” So long as it is understood that the negative is defending the alternative of stronger federal air pollution control (assuming the various expressions all refer to the same level of pollution control), it should not matter how that position is described. The semantics do not affect the desirability of that alternative.

The primary difference is that, in practice, the counterplan is often more specific, and sometimes more clearly presented and defended, whereas traditional negative teams implicitly define their position as they proceed. These are strategic differences that affect the persuasiveness of the negative position, not differences in the substance of what the negative is defending. It would not be possible to devise a clear line to separate the “official policies” that are welcome from the “vague suggestions” that are not. Fortunately, there is no [end page 221] pressing reason to do so; how the negative position is defined by the judge should make no more difference than how it is labeled by the debaters. One often observes debates in which half of the speaking time is devoted to questions of when and how so-called “minor repairs” would be enacted. During those debates, of course, both teams take for granted that the affirmative plan would surmount such barriers by fiat.16

[Footnote 16: Once fiat is understood as being exercised by both affirmatives and negatives, it is important to define its scope. It is accepted that the affirmative may not claim an advantage by “fiating changes in people’s attitudes.” The negative’s fiat power should be similarly limited. Generally, one can view the territory of argument as being defined in two steps. (1) One must determine the range of potential alternatives to be considered in the debate. Fiat addresses this question of context. (2) This range is divided into “Affirmative-land” and “Negative-land,” the resolution being the source for the division.

Whether the negative may fiat state or international action is a common source of dispute. I attempt no solution to the controversy in this article. Proper limitations on counterplans, if any, should not disappear upon the negative’s incantation of the term “counterplan.” Rather, the issue addresses what alternatives a judge wishes to compare. In some contexts it is realistic to consider proper federal government action under the assumption that state or foreign governments’ actions cannot be altered directly. At other times, one may wish to compare the merits of action at different jurisdictional levels. One cannot begin to address properly such choices until the relevant questions are asked, and they are questions beyond the terminology or strategy employed by a particular negative team.]

Citation: Kaplow, Louis. “Rethinking Counterplans: A Reconciliation with Debate Theory.” Journal of the American Forensic Association, Volume 17, Issue 4, Spring 1981, pp. 221-222.

Strategically, the negative uses an advantage counterplan to solve all or part of the affirmative’s case. The net-benefit is a disadvantage (or impact turn or link turn vs. an advantage) that links to the plan and permutation, but not the counterplan alone.

Most often, the net-benefit to an advantage counterplan is a plan-specific disadvantage. This tends to be the most challenging advantage counterplan-based strategy for affirmatives to defeat. In other debates, the net-benefit is the politics DA (or another process-based DA); these strategies tend to be a bit less threatening to affirmatives. Finally, some negative teams use advantage counterplans to build impact turn-based strategies. This typically involves “counterplanning out of” advantage one and impact turning advantage two. When done well, this can also be quite effective.

Advanced Advantage Counterplan-Based Strategies

There are a few more sophisticated advantage counterplan-based strategies, but they are mostly beyond the scope of this article.

Most notably, the negative can use advantage counterplans to “make disadvantages (and impact turns) conditional.” For example, the negative could respond to an advantage about economic growth with an impact turn (economic growth is bad) and a conditional advantage counterplan to solve economic growth in a different way. If the affirmative wins the growth good/bad debate, the negative can still go for the advantage counterplan to (also) solve economic growth. If the negative wants to go for growth bad, they can kick the advantage counterplan.

This same strategy can be deployed alongside disadvantages. For example, the 1NC can introduce a politics disadvantage (the plan derails passage of an important infrastructure proposal) alongside a conditional counterplan to pass the infrastructure proposal and another conditional counterplan to table (not pass) the infrastructure proposal. If the affirmative straight impact turns the disadvantage (by arguing that the infrastructure proposal is bad), the negative can extend the counterplan to table it; that “solves” the impact turn. If the affirmative instead straight link turns the disadvantage (by arguing that the infrastructure proposal will not pass unless the plan passes), the negative can extend the counterplan to pass the infrastructure proposal; this “solves” the link turn.

Both of these examples are really more about conditionality than they are about advantage counterplans, but it is important for students to recognize the strategic power of advantage counterplan-based strategies. I will address these strategies separately in a future article.

Seven Ways To Answer Advantage Counterplans

In general, affirmatives have the following seven options when responding to advantage counterplans.

1. Solvency Deficits To The Counterplan

This is the most obvious affirmative response. A solvency deficit argues that the plan solves better than the counterplan; the “deficit” is the difference between the plan’s degree or amount of solvency and the counterplan’s degree or amount.

Depending on the particular advantage(s) being debated, solvency deficits can be “absolute” (the counterplan can’t solve the advantage at all) or “linear” (the counterplan can solve some, but not all, of the advantage). Absolute solvency takeouts are (of course) more valuable for the affirmative, but they are extremely rare.

In general, the more intrinsic the advantage is to the plan, the more successful the affirmative will be at proving the existence of a solvency deficit. Intrinsic advantages are advantages that are “only” captured by the plan; the plan is necessary to solve the advantage.

For example, a police violence advantage to a police reform plan on the criminal justice reform topic was relatively intrinsic. It was difficult (but not impossible) for the negative to propose a different policy to address police violence — i.e., expand public education programs to reduce miscommunications with police officers, decriminalize drugs to reduce police encounters, strengthen gun control to reduce high-risk police interactions, etc. While some of these policies might solve some of the advantage, the plan was likely necessary to meaningfully reduce police violence.

By comparison, a U.S. global leadership advantage to an “abolish the death penalty” plan was much less intrinsic. Against this advantage, it was easier for the negative to identify and defend alternate policies to shore up U.S. global leadership; abolishing the death penalty was unlikely to be necessary to solve that impact. A “state-sanctioned killing bad” advantage to the death penalty plan was much more intrinsic; compared with the U.S. leadership advantage, the state-sanctioned killing bad advantage was much more difficult for the negative to “counterplan out of.”

When designing a particular affirmative’s strategy against advantage counterplans, it is important to realistically assess the intrinsicness of its advantages — and, by extension, the probability that the affirmative will win a meaningful solvency deficit. A small but non-zero solvency deficit is sometimes enough to win a debate, but the affirmative should not count on it.

If the affirmative is unlikely to win a large solvency deficit against an advantage counterplan, they need to prioritize another strategy and type of response.

2. Add-On Impacts That The Counterplan Doesn’t Solve

If the negative’s advantage counterplan attempts to solve only the terminal impact(s) to a particular advantage, the affirmative can read add-on impacts stemming from their internal link. These are strategic affirmative arguments because they require very little 2AC time investment; the 1AC has already laid out the internal link chain, so all the 2AC needs to do is “finish it” with another impact (or two, or three, etc.).

Of course, each new impact introduced by the affirmative can be impact turned by the negative block. When preparing impact add-ons, it is important to ensure that the 1AR is prepared to defend the impact if the negative chooses that option.

The negative may also choose to respond by amending their advantage counterplan to add additional planks. The affirmative should therefore prepare to prove (in the 1AR) that at least one of their impacts is intrinsic (enough) to the plan to weigh against the negative’s net-benefit. If the introduction of new advantage counterplan planks likely makes this impossible, the affirmative should not count exclusively on impact add-ons to win the debate.

3. Add-On Advantages That The Counterplan Doesn’t Solve

If the negative’s advantage counterplan attempts to solve the internal links to a particular advantage, impact add-ons won’t help; the counterplan also solves them because it solves the internal link from which they stem.

Against these counterplans, the affirmative can instead choose to read one or more add-on advantages. These are more time-intensive to introduce than add-on impacts. They are just like the advantages in the 1AC, but generally with fewer supporting cards and less overall development. Typically, add-on advantages are two to four cards; rarely, a single card can be enough to introduce an additional advantage.

In response to add-on advantages, negatives have a variety of options. They can amend their counterplan to try to solve the impact or internal link (or both), they can impact turn, or they can “play defense” against the advantage with case arguments.

As with impact add-ons, the affirmative needs to be prepared to defend their add-on advantages against these negative responses. With so little time available for developing them, it can be difficult to win a high risk of an add-on advantage unless it is strategically designed. This requires careful 2AC evidence selection, tagging, and highlighting; it also requires efficient, well-prepared backline blocks and supporting evidence for the 1AR.

If an affirmative “needs” an add-on advantage to defeat common negative counterplans, they should consider moving the advantage to the 1AC. While there are certain strategic benefits of introducing the advantage as an add-on, moving the advantage to the 1AC will allow it to be developed in much greater depth. If the advantage is essential to an affirmative victory, this tends to be a worthwhile time investment.

4. Disadvantages To The Counterplan

In the same way that the negative can introduce a disadvantage against the plan, the affirmative can introduce a disadvantage against the counterplan. The more aggressive the negative’s counterplan proposal(s), the more likely the affirmative can research a compelling disadvantage against it.

This can be a powerful affirmative strategy because it allows the affirmative to weigh the disadvantage to the counterplan against the disadvantage to the plan, “plus” the solvency deficit to the counterplan (for a 1AC advantage and/or an add-on 2AC impact/advantage).

However, conditionality looms. If the negative cannot answer the disadvantage — or if they conclude that it isn’t worth their negative block time to do so — they can simply kick the counterplan. If the disadvantage to the counterplan is only that — a disadvantage to the counterplan, and not (also) an advantage to the plan — this move makes it useless. In some situations, this is still a worthwhile tradeoff for the affirmative. If introducing a 2AC disadvantage causes the negative to kick a counterplan that the affirmative thinks they would have otherwise struggled to defeat, it was a smart strategic move.

The most strategic disadvantages against counterplans are those that are both a disadvantage to the counterplan and (at least to some extent) an advantage to the plan. For example, an affirmative that used Congress as its agent might answer a courts counterplan with an add-on advantage about Congress’s power of the purse that is also a disadvantage to judicial decisions that infringe on that congressional power. Even if the negative kicks the courts counterplan, the affirmative can still extend the add-on advantage if they can prove that their plan strengthens Congress’s power of the purse.

These hybrid “add-on plus DA” arguments are difficult to research, but they are immensely strategic if the affirmative can craft one.

5. Counterplan Links To The Net-Benefit

Whenever possible, the affirmative should attempt to prove that the same disadvantage the negative has tried to link to the plan also links to the counterplan. The best advantage counterplan-based negative strategies make this difficult. In the same way that intrinsic advantages are harder for the negative to solve with an advantage counterplan, intrinsic disadvantages make it easier for the negative to propose a counterplan that avoids the link.

For example, a Farming DA to a “strengthen/broaden WOTUS” affirmative on the water resources protection topic is relatively intrinsic to that plan. While it might also link to other proposals that could negatively affect the agriculture industry, this still give the negative a wide range of counterplan options that can avoid the link.

On the other hand, the Politics DA tends to be much less intrinsic to any particular plan. While the negative might introduce a plan-specific link in the 1NC, the affirmative can respond in the 2AC with a counterplan-specific link.

Again, conditionality complicates this strategy. If (in the politics DA example) the 2AC reads a totalizing, “every policy that passes Congress is a heavy lift that depletes the president’s political capital” card, the negative could choose to kick the counterplan and cross-apply that link to the plan. This would leave the negative without the counterplan but with a stronger link to the politics DA.

This might be a worthwhile tradeoff for the affirmative. If the counterplan was going to be difficult to defeat, causing the negative to kick it might be valuable even if it means the negative is left with a stronger politics DA link. That would be especially true if, for example, the affirmative’s best strategy against the politics DA was to defeat its uniqueness or impact rather than its link. If the affirmative’s best strategy against the politics DA was to defeat the link, on the other hand, this strategic move might be counterproductive.

6. Permutation Shields The Link To The Net-Benefit

The flip side of “counterplan links to net-benefit” is “permutation shields link to net-benefit.” Sometimes, the combination of the plan and counterplan can change how the link to the net-benefit is evaluated. Here are two examples:

  • “Shields Link” — The plan enacts a new water pollution regulation. The 1NC politics DA link is to anti-business regulations; the advantage counterplan provides incentives (rather than regulations) to accomplish the same goal as the plan. In the 2AC, the affirmative can argue that the permutation to simultaneously enact a new regulation and increase incentives related to the same goal would not be perceived as an anti-business regulation because it couples regulations with incentives. In response, the negative would need to prove the link not just to the plan alone but also to the combination of the plan and counterplan.
  • “Solves Link” — The plan spends trillions to improve water infrastructure; the affirmative claims that this stimulates the economy. The 1NC reads a spending tradeoff DA: the plan will take money away from the military, imperiling U.S. global leadership. They also read an advantage counterplan: the U.S. should increase the corporate tax rate, close tax loopholes, and implement a billionaire tax; they claim this solves the economy. In the 2AC, the affirmative can argue that the permutation (spend trillions on water infrastructure and implement those tax policy changes) “solves” the link to the disadvantage because it raises more revenue than it spends; no cuts to the military’s budget will be needed. Again, this might prompt the negative to kick the counterplan; if they need to win the debate on the spending tradeoff DA, they might not want to risk the permutation solving it.

A well-designed negative advantage counterplan strategy will limit the affirmative’s ability to make this type of argument, but it’s always worth considering. At a minimum, making the argument will force the negative to prove that they were well-prepared. If they weren’t, this can become a valuable part of the affirmative’s strategy.

7. The Counterplan Is Theoretically Illegitimate

I considered leaving this off the list because it is usually a non-starter. However, “conditionality bad” or specific theory gripes about the legitimacy of particular advantage counterplans (multi-actor fiat, outcome-based fiat, object fiat, etc.) can sometimes be a useful part of the affirmative’s strategy.

Theory can also sometimes play a role if the negative amends their counterplan (to correct mistakes or add additional planks) in the 2NC or 1NR.

In general, though, affirmatives should not rely on theory to defeat advantage counterplans.

When All Else Fails: The Net-Benefit

Sometimes, the best way to answer an advantage counterplan is to answer its net-benefit. In situations where the affirmative cannot win any of the above arguments, their last resort is to (straight) turn the net-benefit. Instead of trying to win the debate with a 1AC advantage or 2AC add-on, this strategy means the affirmative tries to win the debate with an impact turn or link turn against the net-benefit.

For example, imagine that the negative has introduced a two-plank advantage counterplan that solves both of the affirmative’s advantages. The net-benefit is a politics DA. If the affirmative determines that they are unlikely to win a solvency deficit against the counterplan, and if they do not have an add-on prepared that the counterplan doesn’t solve, their best path to victory might be to impact turn the politics DA. In the 1AR (probably) and 2AR (definitely), this would involve conceding the case/counterplan solvency in order to go “all in” on the impact turn.

This is not a sustainable strategy over the long term. By mooting the 1AC, it sacrifices one of the affirmative’s most important structural advantages. But if the affirmative team finds itself in a situation where none of the aforementioned answers seem likely to be effective, this might be their only viable path to victory.

2AC Strategy vs. 1AC Design

Finally, it is important to remember that the best way to answer an advantage counterplan is sometimes to change the 1AC. If the affirmative is struggling to figure out how to defeat an advantage counterplan-based strategy using the arguments listed above, there is a good chance that it is just not a strategic affirmative — at least not against this particular subset of strategies.

In some situations, the 1AC might be designed to defeat other negative arguments that the affirmative thinks are more important. In that case, the affirmative might be prepared to live with its vulnerability to an advantage counterplan.

In other situations, rearranging and redesigning the advantages might be enough to make the affirmative viable. Because advantage counterplans “test the intrinsicness” of the affirmative’s advantages, they tend to reveal shortcomings in 1AC design. If these shortcomings can be corrected, the affirmative will be in a much better position to answer advantage counterplan-based strategies going forward.

However, some 1ACs are simply not viable. If a well-designed advantage counterplan-based strategy seems unbeatable, the affirmative would benefit more from starting over and developing a different case than from trying to salvage their existing one.