The Surprise Strategy Guidebook (Part One)

In the last post, we explored six questions to ask yourself before you run the Surprise Strategy in policy debate this year. If you answered positively, here’s what you need to know to be excellent:

1. Never stop writing.

You should be searching for new case ideas the way marathoners search for interps – casting the net wide, maintaining a list of ideas, etc. Know what people are running not just in your region, but throughout your competitive environment. Every resolution has places you can go that no one saw coming because they didn’t research as hard as you did.

This is the most important key to running the surprise strategy, and the reason most teams fail to do it well. Being surprising isn’t an event, it’s a lifestyle.

2. It’s not crazy unless you think it is.

My partner Michael and I did the Surprise Strategy for our final year of competition. One year, the resolution dealt with US policy towards its Federal Court System. Typical cases included term limits for Supreme Court Justices, ending jury nullification, banning mandatory minimum sentences, or abolishing jury nullification. We went deeper and got more creative. Some of the cases we ran that year included:

  • Banning peremptory challenges, an obscure practice that eliminates jury members at the attorney’s discretion.

  • Creating a new federal agency to oversee the judicial process of drone strike assassinations.

  • Requiring post-expiration patent royalty contracts to be evaluated under the Rule of Reason.

  • Placing a federal ban on bite mark evidence.

Regardless of the case, our affirmative win rate hovered around 90% that year. How did we get such creative ideas? Not because we were special. But when other teams had great ideas and thought “Nah, that’s too crazy, no one else is doing that,” we went ahead and did it. And when negatives hung their hands during rounds and whined about how they’d never seen a case like that before, all they did was expose their relative lack of topic knowledge.

Your case isn’t crazy/out there/squirrelly just because someone says it is. It only becomes so when you start to agree.

3. It doesn’t matter if people see your case.

The trick to the surprise strategy isn’t to keep your one really cool case buried. It will eventually get found out. Your goal is to make all intel on you useless. No one knows what you’re running or how to beat it, even if they have a flow from your last affirmative round.

When Michael and I competed, it was normal to have a smattering of coaches from various clubs during our first affirmative round getting a flow of our case. They’d learned to expect something brand new every time. But even their mid-tournament preparations were rarely useful, which is something we’ll cover in next week’s post.

Coming up: Part 2 of the Surprise Strategy Guidebook.