This post contains a full breakdown of aff strategies in the current high school LD metagame. The graphs below should be of interest to debaters, coaches and theorists. First, the data should help us make more sophisticated arguments about the presence or absence of certain strategies in the metagame. Second, it should help debaters prepping for postseason tournaments like NDCA and TOC predict what they might hit. The most motivated debaters will already be well aware of the metagame and perhaps have compiled their own lists; for them, I hope this post helps by quantifying what’s disclosed, providing commentary, and adding a fun visual component.
I used bid-round participants at Berkeley and Harvard to compile my disclosure data. Some advantages of this sample include:
- Most top circuit debaters attend either Berkeley or Harvard since they are the last octas bids on the topic
- The sample is regionally diverse since it includes a west coast and east coast tournament
- Both tournaments are toward the end of the Jan-Feb topic, so dominant strategies should have emerged after tournaments like Blake/CPS, Lexington, Emory and Harvard-Westlake
Some drawbacks of this sample include:
- I did not include Millard North, which was the same weekend, and had attendance from some strong debaters. I made this decision because the tournament was largely dominated by one team that does not reliably disclose, so its inclusion would’ve added very little and perhaps even misleading data. At Berkeley and Harvard, in contrast, 63/64 bid round participants disclosed.
- Compared to the pool of competitors at TOC my sample is both over- and under-inclusive. I like the Berkeley/Harvard sample because it gives a sense of what arguments are run in those two regions, but I could have divided the TOC pool by school region to try to reveal the same trends.
I gathered a list of all the affs on each debater’s wiki. Each debater counted for 1/63 in the total breakdown, and each aff counted for 1/X, where X is the number of affs on that debater’s wiki. Some drawbacks of this process include:
- Disclosure pages do not reflect the frequency with which certain arguments are read; further, they do not always indicate which arguments were read at which tournaments. That means some affs in my sample were not read at Berkeley/Harvard, so they may not reflect the current state of the meta.
- Some teams selectively disclose. While disclosure is nearly universal, the quality of that disclosure varies. Occasionally, a debater will write on his/her wiki page to check a teammate’s wiki. This is misleading because it’s unlikely that the debater read the exact same arguments or has the same argument tendencies as the teammate, especially at the highest levels of LD debate.
I’m open to suggestions on better ways to collect my sample for future meta breakdowns.
To divide 63 aff wikis, I stuck with the same categories as last season’s meta breakdown: consequentialisms (including oppression), all-in kritiks, and moral philosophy / framework. However, my placements of some affs have changed in two ways.
First, some arguments that were stock on last year’s Jan-Feb topic are not stock on this year’s and vice versa. This means, for example, that militarism affs have moved from the consequentialism category to the all-in K category. I make this change because whereas last year, most militarism affs engaged in a straight-up solvency / consequentialism debate about the efficacy of gun bans, most of this year’s militarism affs don’t. This year’s militarism affs don’t read the same stock authors as the generic oppression affs, so negs probably answer them quite differently.
Second, I’ve broadened the moral philosophy / framework category. When I think of moral philosophy in LD over the past six seasons, I think of Korsgaard, Parfit, Rawls, Scanlon, and the like. Positions based on these authors and others in the analytic tradition are now few and far between. That said, there is still framework debate. Today’s framework debaters are deploying Butler, Deleuze, Derrida, and Hagglund. There is still debate on the value criterion, and these debaters’ pursue common framework strategies. As such, I’ve included the agonism aff, for example, under “moral philosophy / framework,” while recognizing it’s not a clean fit.
There might be a better way than what I’ve done here, but this is my categorization:
Consequentialisms (including oppression): This group contains all the stock affs, whether the framework is oppression-based, utilitarian, rule-utilitarian, pretending not to be utilitarian, or non-existent; advantages relating to concealed carry, oppression, racism, and sexual assault; and plans relating to anti-Zionism, gag orders, journalism, speech codes, student athletes, trigger warnings, and the Yale Woodward model. Some teams ran the same aff with different frameworks, which I included as separate affs. The concealed carry and sexual assault advantages were sufficiently unique to merit separate inclusion, as were the extinction-impacting advantages I separated from “stock util,” as you’ll see below.
All-in Kritiks: This group contains topic-specific affs relating to Adorno, anti-Zionism, Asian American identity, biopower, black rage, Christianity, colonialism, Deleuze, Derrida, feminist killjoy, Lyotard, militarism, neoliberalism, psychoanalysis, race, UC Berkeley protests, and professor watchlists; non-topical affs relating to ableism, Baudrillard, Deleuzean pirates, and science fiction; and plan versions of militarism and neoliberalism. All of these affs have a singular focus and deploy some kind of continental philosophy or critical theory.
Moral Philosophy / Framework: This group contains traditional moral philosophy / framework-y cases like alienation, constitution, democratic deliberation, discourse ethics, existentialism, intuitions, Kant, Pettit’s republicanism, pragmatism, Rawls, and testimony; and less moral philosophy but still framework-y cases like agonism, Butler grief, legal indeterminacy, legal ought, and logical ought.
Now without further ado…
Meta Overview Graphs
Berkeley this year was flooded by consequentialist and kritik affs. Not a single debater in doubles had a moral philosophy / framework aff as his/her only aff, which means it’s possible that those affs weren’t even read at Berkeley at all. While the graph shows only a slight edge for Ks, given that most consequentialist affs are oppression-based, I think it’s fair to say that the west coast meta is now clearly dominated by kritik strategies. More on this below.
At Harvard, we saw a much more balanced meta. While the agonism aff accounts for a good chunk of the moral philosophy / framework category, there were a number of other affs in the category that no debaters in the Berkeley sample had on their wiki. The Harvard meta included a far more diverse selection of moral philosophy / framework affs, while the Berkeley meta included a slightly more diverse selection of consequentialist and K affs. More on this below.
A surprisingly balanced meta!
Consequentialism Meta Graphs
I had to fit a lot of data on these graphs, so if you’re having trouble reading the labels, click on the image, and it’ll expand in a new tab. I organized the pie slices alphabetically, rather than by size, so you can more easily visualize combinations of slices, e.g. all of the stock affs account for over 50% of the following graph:
That almost 1/3 of the consequentialist meta is the journalist speech plan is more reflective of Harvard-Westlake‘s success at Berkeley than the argument’s popularity. Last year, my meta graph got added to their 1AR T block to answer predictability claims. This year, the argument about meta prevalence isn’t as strong for them as they were the only ones reading the aff at Berkeley. Note my main criterion for differentiating between the various stock/oppression affs was the framework. Most of these affs read the same cards about counterspeech, backlash, censorship being bad, etc., with the same authors. I differentiated by framework since that could have a significant impact on neg strategy — a util framework invites a disad where an oppression framework invites a kritik, for example. Stock w/ FW refers to any aff that had a non-util, non-extinction, non-oppression framework, usually something about free speech rights. You might think they belong in the moral philosophy category, but the frameworks on these are so flimsy and the offense so obviously consequentialist, I stuck them here instead. Anti-Zionism probably includes a plan, but Loyola had a version without a plan, so I dropped ‘plan’ from the label.
Now don’t go out and prep the speech codes plan like it’s the night before elims: It looks like a big chunk of the meta because one debater, St. Andrew’s Episcopal IB, read it as his sole aff, and the number of consequentialist affs at Harvard was low to begin with. Compare to Lexington’s Yale Woodward plan, which three of their debaters read but was three of thirteen of their combined aff pool. Note that plans at Harvard made up 37% of the meta, closely trailing Berkeley’s 41% (counting Anti-Zionism). That surprised me.
The sample is different from last year’s meta analysis (Emory vs Berkeley/Harvard), but my suspicion is that straight-up (non-K) plans are down on this topic, which is why we’re seeing so many stock affs. It could also be that more Ks on the neg leads to a race to the middle: (1) stock debate seems more reasonable and thus K links might be harder to generate and (2) if the debate will come down to the K anyway, debaters might think the extra time spent researching and writing a non-stock aff isn’t worth it.
All-in Kritik Meta Graphs
As discussed above, Ks are up, but most of the Ks we’re seeing aren’t particularly innovative in content or strategy, so those of you worried about a K takeover can find some solace in this graph. We’re not seeing 30+ non-topical affs per tournament like college policy debaters did in the post-Rutgers 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. We’re also not seeing particularly complicated or dense affs, which surprised me a little bit. Whenever someone breaks a cool Baudrillard, Deleuze, or Derrida aff, we all hear about it. Still, these affs don’t come close to the frequency of the relatively stock biopower and militarism positions. 9% of K affs included plans (and I excluded one biopower hate speech plan because it was read with and without the plan). This goes to show that while I’m calling these “All-in Ks,” they share some familiar features with the consequentialist affs.
The east coast sure loves Giroux! There’s a little less diversity here than at Berkeley, but the breakdown is fairly similar. There’s no biopower, but that’s not too surprising since only four debaters were reading it at Berkeley (two ran it as their sole aff). A similar phenomenon occurs here with the Asian American identity affs, the colonialism affs, and the feminist killjoy affs. A couple of dedicated debaters can have a big impact on the meta if their aff is the only one they read. Non-T Disability affs were 10% of the K meta at Berkeley because Palo Alto CF read it as his only aff, and Peninsula JL read it as one of two possible affs.
Moral Philosophy / Framework Meta Graphs
I’m not quite sure why agonism exploded on this topic. Last year, I really only remember Law Magnet DD reading agonism, so maybe he gets the blame/credit. Most of these affs involve Butler, Hagglund, and Mouffe cards. I’ve never thought that the cards from any of those authors were particularly good, but I guess teams are making it work. As I described above, these affs, when I’ve seen them, are debated in a very framework-y way. They may have roles of the ballot, but generally, debaters are investing significant time in the framework debate, extending analytics, pointing out fallacies, etc. Typical framework stuff.
We saw far more diversity in framework choice at Harvard. Kant and agonism are still the big two, but there are a bunch of affs being read by only one or two teams. This could be because as far as framework goes, debaters in the northeast are more confident in their abilities to innovate on the topic, e.g. Hunter NP’s pragmatism aff or Pembroke JF’s intuitions aff. It could also be that given the judging pool, there are greater incentives to read moral philosophy / framework, so debaters want to stay in the category but deviate from the popular Kant/agonism strategies. Many teams had multiple moral philosophy / framework affs, which was certainly not the case at Berkeley.
Total Meta Graph
The following graph combines the graphs above into one, but for legibility reasons, I eliminated all affs that showed less than 2% popularity in the meta.
To no one’s surprise, stock affs are the most popular, followed by militarism, the student journalism plan, Kant, and agonism.
Like I said last year, there’s probably a better way to do all this, but I’m not a math guru. You can download my spreadsheet here if you want to see the raw data and how I counted it all up.
I could have gone a step further and recommended certain affs based on how well they did, but as I noted above, the data is limited in strategic value. We don’t know if a debater who had two affs read one in prelims and one in elims, or one read at CPS but not Berkeley. Someone who got really far might have negated in key rounds, so the results don’t speak to the strength of the aff. Or maybe a really good debater is running a really poorly constructed affirmative but manages to win a lot of debates anyway!
Nonetheless, I hope I’ve helped. If you’re a debater who likes this sort of analysis, you’d love the lectures we give every summer at Premier on the state of the meta, predicting the new meta, and general strategy. To my knowledge, we are the only camp that offers a lecture on the metagame and strategic principles as part of the core curriculum.
Lastly, just for the fun of it, let’s run some polls on which of the most popular affs you think are best on this topic. Anyone can vote for up to three affs:
Bob Overing | Co-Director
Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current Yale Law School student. As a senior in high school, he was ranked #1, earned 11 bids and took 2nd at TOC. In college, he cleared at CEDA and qualified to the NDT. His students have earned over 80 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.