by Salim Damerdji
Prelims – Preliminary rounds occur before elimination rounds. They gauge your seeding.
Elims – Think of Elimination rounds as the March Madness segment of a tournament.
Breaking – Advancing to elimination rounds. This typically requires getting through preliminary rounds with a positive record. Usually, one must go 4-2 in preliminary rounds to break, but it always depends on the tournament.
Breaking new – Breaking new means reading a substantially different case generally to secure an advantage in the round.
1AR Expansions – These are new, well-prepared outs for the 1AR that are written ahead of time. It could be four minutes of turns to a popular NC, or a list of off-cases against a tricky neg position.
Elims and prelims have a few significant differences. As the name suggests, every elimination round is a must-win situation, so the intensity is much higher than in prelims where debaters can afford to lose two prelim rounds without forfeiting the chance to break. Tournaments assemble three-judge panels for elimination rounds to ensure accurate elim results.
Before an elim, both debaters flip a coin before the round to determine which side each defends. One debater flips the coin and the other calls heads or tails while it’s in the air. The winner picks their preferred side.
With the higher stakes, there’s some strategizing behind the coin flip and pre-round preparation. Small school debaters and younger debaters need to look out for themselves to avoid being disadvantaged from the start.
This article will offer suggestions with how to navigate elim shenanigans. As a disclaimer, there’s really no objective guide for these issues. Other people may disagree with me on certain issues. Nevertheless, the following is how I would advise my own debaters.
When to Flip
At most tournaments, there’s no time mandated for flipping, so you’ll need to come to a mutually agreeable time to flip with your opponent. If your opponent approaches you and asks to flip, make sure that you’ve already taken the time to decide when you’d prefer to flip – you can always get back to them in five minutes if you’re not sure yet.
Some debaters always and uncritically flip immediately so they can start prepping sooner. This won’t always work out in your favor given that all advantages are comparative. If your opponent has a larger coaching staff and team to help them prep, their advantage from an hour of prep will generally be better than yours. Perhaps your opponent relies heavily on prep. In that case, it’s strategic to try to delay the coin flip, so they have less prep to rely on.
You should also consider the prep you’ve already done too. If you’re breaking new no matter what, flip earlier because none of the prep your opponent will do will matter. If you already have a prep-out, delay the coin flip since more time won’t help you.
Every suggestion so far also works in the reverse – if you know your opponent already has a quality prep-out to your only aff, you should definitely flip earlier since your opponent will only get marginal returns from another hour of prep.
Two last notes that rarely matter. It’s probably not legitimate for your opponent to take a lot of time in between the coin flip and deciding which side to pick. Finally, have someone nearby during the coin flip to avoid coin flip sketchery.
Which Side to Flip
If you win the coin flip, you now need to decide which side to pick.
The short of it is that you’ll feel like a tool if you flip aff and lose. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to flip neg. The oft-cited statistic is that the neg wins 7% more rounds, but in front of some great judges, this number can be even higher . We’ll go over some considerations that might justify affirming, but at the end of the day, the empirics speak for themselves .
Let’s say you really want to affirm. Try postponing the coin flip till as late as possible. If you lose the flip, you’ll almost definitely affirm. If you win the flip, you will affirm. So it doesn’t matter when the flip happens because you know you’re going to affirm whereas your opponent will waste time preparing 1AR strategy.
You now have an hour to update your aff and write expansions for the 1AR. If you only prep for the aff side, any good update to an aff should make that neg prep irrelevant by thoroughly refuting the NC strategy you’d imagine your opponent might take. This sort of aff can be dizzying to debate. You can’t read the neg prep-out you wrote since it either doesn’t apply or there’s too much AC ink to get through.
If you plan on negating, be sure to keep the following in mind. Many debaters will always think thoroughly about their NC strategy before considering what they would do if they’re affirming. You shouldn’t fall into this trap your self. Make adjustments to the aff in preparation for the NC you foresee. Then write some 1ar expansions against your opponent’s favorite neg positions.)
When to Break New
Breaking a new position should change the course of the round; don’t break new simply to break new. If you’re confident that breaking new won’t help you win, then you shouldn’t be breaking new. First and foremost, you should keep an eye on the brackets and the schedule.
If you unnecessarily break a new position, it could actually hurt, not help, your overall performance at the tournament. Let’s say the brackets imply that your next round will be a tough, close one. Your next opponent in the brackets may either watch your round or send someone else to watch it. If so, you’ll regret breaking your position pre-maturely.
There are a few ways to tell if breaking a position is unnecessary. The easiest way to tell is if your opponent is easily beatable. Perhaps your new position isn’t even that great against your opponent. Or maybe your opponent doesn’t even engage affs. If they’re just going to read an NC strat that up-layers, the only person who will care about the flow of the aff is your next opponent.
Instead, try to break new against people where the aff or neg will still matter by the end of the round. Bonus points if you can postpone breaking new until the morning. If you break a new position right before the night ends, people could spend the night writing answers. One last thing: be sure to have practice with this position many times before breaking it for the big round. Breaking new can be game changing; don’t fumble the opportunity to get the big win.
What’s the Aff!?!
For the last two years, more and more negs ask opponents to disclose which aff will be read before the round starts. It seems like it’s a norm borrowed from policy and used primarily by teams with a policy-influenced coaching staff.
The main problem is that I’ve almost never seen a negative debater reciprocate, so the aff cannot prepare a 1AR for the NC strategy. In policy this is fine, but for justifications that don’t exist in LD. Our affs are not hyper-specific plans that have been frontlined for an entire year on massively broad topics. Even more concretely, the skew against the neg in policy exists in reverse in LD. Since everyone has more neg positions than aff positions, this merely multiplies the skew by giving the neg much better knowledge of what to focus prepping.
To get in the ballpark of reciprocity, some neg debaters are willing to disclose their neg strategy as “probably being x.” News flash: nearly every time this happens, the neg strategy is the exact opposite of x.
Some argue the neg strategy shouldn’t be constrained before CX. I believe this should be the necessary opportunity cost if you want to spend an hour prepping out an aff. You damn well better write a prep-out that can’t be outdone by a last minute audible to some other position. There is zero chance that the skew caused by being forced to stick to the position you planned on reading outweighs the skew caused by the neg knowing the aff, but not the other way around.
Some schools approximate reciprocity by offering to disclose their strategy in past rounds against the same type of aff. While this is more reasonable, it doesn’t really mean much in an elim round where breaking new is almost expected. It’s even worse when the neg has taken a plethora of different strategies against the aff, so even disclosure of all those strategies doesn’t get us any closer to reciprocity given that the neg knows exactly what the aff is.
I think this also brings us to a more general problem. If your “disclosure” of the neg strategy is sufficient for the aff, then the same should hold true for you. If these teams genuinely believe their alternative sufficiently lets the aff prepare against the NC strategy, they should be asking, “what aff will you probably read” or “what strategies have you taken before against negs who debate like us?” That would be reciprocal. It’s not reciprocal, however, to glue the aff down to one position in an activity that already disadvantages affs while keeping your strategic options open.
There’s another thing to note. Often, the first question of “what’s the aff” will spur several others. They might ask what type of aff it is, then whether it is a plan, then what the plan text, then what the advantages are, and so on. With the information they have, there’s no doubt their strategy against the aff will be better than your strategy against their neg.
Perhaps I’m missing the point. These teams love bringing up substantive education, which is odd since they seem to lose sight of this education when they happen to be affirming. Empirically, a lot of these debaters won’t go out of their way to disclose their aff before the round.
Of course, I can name far more debaters that are completely reasonable in their requests for disclosure than I can debaters that are unreasonable. Still, it’d be a bit naïve to then assume there is no strategic disadvantage to the aff that results from this.
It’s also hard to take these educational claims seriously when the practice has been tied to questioning that verges on bullying. If you really care about this activity, then you should stop trying to intimidate sophomores by threatening to read your coach’s disclosure theory shell. You probably don’t need to ask the “will you disclose your aff” more than once before taking no for an answer. And you probably don’t need to bring your entire team and coaching staff when asking a debater on their own.
 Personally, I have a borderline embarrassing 22% skew for the neg. Quite a few well-liked judges are in the same boat. You can check it out by looking at a judge’s full historical record on Tabroom and ctrl + f for “aff “ and “neg “.  Some claim aff bias is psychological. This seems plausible. A lot of debaters before a round only think about what they would do if they were negating rather than thinking about their aff strategy. But this skew exists in prelims too, so this can’t be a sufficient explanation. Perhaps people just psych themselves out, but who really knows?