The Surprise Case Strategy

In general, I advise students to show their cases early and often to get useful intelligence. That should be the default strategy for any debater regardless of league, experience level, or style.

But there is another direction for an elite group of debaters: the Surprise Strategy.

Secret, Squirrel, or Surprise?

The concept of a “secret case” is ambiguous and distracting. A case being secret doesn’t increase its power in any way. In fact, it suggests that the case becomes useless once the secret is out.

And I dislike the term “squirrel case,” with its connotation that finding an area of the resolution that hasn’t yet been explored is somehow a bad thing and everyone should just go with the flow. Going into unexplored areas boosts the educational value of debate and makes it more fun. No one should be shamed for doing that.

The best term to describe this strategy is “surprise.” Your goal is to create a panic experience for opponents who are overly dependent on evidence, causing them to spiral into a sequence of bad decisions. I’ll explain how it works, but first: are you ready for the Surprise Strategy? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. “Are you in policy debate?"

Policy is the only style that supports this strategy properly. With value and fact debate, it’s too easy to come up with strong claims on the fly that don’t require expert evidence, and your opponents will have cases of their own so it’s impossible to catch them unprepared.

2. “Can you write well consistently?”

Think about the last four cases you wrote. Were some substantially better than others? If so, you’re not ready for Surprise yet. You need to reach a level where you can write at a consistently top level. The fact that you’ll be writing a lot of cases doesn’t mean that any individual case can be weaker.

3. “How many cases can you write this year?”

You’re looking at researching and writing a new case every few weeks. That’s a big commitment. Your grasp of theory, research, and writing should be very strong. Think about 3-5 days for research, 1-2 days for writing, and a brief period of stress testing (ideally, full-length rounds against your coach).

4. “Can you emotionally distance yourself?”

Many debaters love their cases so much that it’s hard for them to make the changes it needs to succeed. The Surprise Strategy is even more demanding. You’ll have to write a great case, run it, and move on – even if you think it still has legs.

5. “Can you think on your feet?”

Chances are, your opponents won’t run substantive arguments against you. You’ll face a rigorous schedule of baseless questions, whining, and convoluted theory. Your job won’t just be to sell the judge on your case, it’ll be to restore clarity after the negative block’s smoke bomb. That means you need to have a really good grasp of critical thinking and the elegant simplicity of policy theory.

6. “How’s your research?”

The Surprise Strategy only works if you have a big research advantage over your opponents. I’m not just talking about your evidence, though that matters (you should be the only team with any). You should know the resolution so well that you can find case ideas no one has thought of. Then you should know the ins and outs of that case so well that you can confidently answer any question in cross-ex. There’s nothing wrong with running cases you didn’t write – from obscure sourcebooks, or by spreading the writing burden among the advanced debaters in your club. But that shouldn’t substantially decrease the amount of time you spend; you still need to put in the work and research the case yourself.

If you answered positively to all of those questions, you’re ready to explore the Surprise Strategy. It’s probably a good option only for debaters with at least eighty rounds of competitive experience. That said, it was one of the tools I used in high school to obtain a 94% affirmative win rate.

Coming up next: step-by-step instructions on the Surprise Strategy.