3 Tips for Those Starting Circuit Tournaments

As the season begins, there are a large number of smaller school debaters and debaters new to the circuit that flood bid tournaments. For these debaters, circuit tournaments can be daunting and scary, and these debaters may be woefully unprepared for the vastly different world of circuit debate. Circuit debate is a whole new game with different rules and arguments from a straightforward traditional debate style, and many of these differences can’t easily be picked up by non-circuit debaters without outside help, coaching, or a lot of hard work. In this short article, I hope to help debaters new to circuit debate start off preparing for circuit tournaments in the right direction.

These are three tips on how to prepare for circuit tournaments and circuit style debate that will hopefully make it easier.

I: Watch Rounds Online.

This is actually a bad title. It really should be focused on flowing rounds online. Just watching will benefit some, and occasionally, you should take the time to watch a round and not flow it to see the big picture and focus on things that you would otherwise miss if you were flowing, such as how they present. However, it is better most of the time to be flowing rounds. There are a couple good reasons to be flowing rounds online.

First, it helps comprehend speed and spreading. One thing that is tough for non-circuit debaters to get used to is spreading. It takes a lot of time to begin to understand it. For me, I had to watch one debate round about ten times before I could even begin to comprehend the words that were being said, let alone understand what they meant. Flowing debate rounds online helps a ton with understanding spreading. If you can understand spreading through computer speakers that was recorded by a subpar mic, you should be fine understanding most debaters in an actual debate round. There is no real substitute for this. You have to watch rounds online to understand spreading and it only comes with time.

The second benefit of watching rounds online is to see how different strategies are employed. Merely comprehending words isn’t going to sufficient to win rounds. You have to understand what they mean and one way to do so is to see how they are used in round. People do lots of crazy stuff in debate rounds, and if you don’t understand them, or at least heard of them, then it’s going to be basically impossible for you to win against those arguments. Watching and flowing rounds helps you understand these arguments because you can see how these arguments interact in round.

Finally, flowing online rounds makes you better at flowing. Duh. But one skill that is often overlooked is the ability to flow debate rounds and it’s a skill that can cause you to lose rounds. A lot of non-circuit debaters just can’t flow the debate when they start off and if you can’t flow, you’re not going to be able to debate at all. If you just don’t know how to flow debate rounds, then it’s going to be pretty hard to win those. If you don’t know where an argument is on the flow or didn’t catch an argument and drop it, oops, you probably just lost the round. Practicing flowing is the only way to get good at flowing. Get used to flowing and following the speed and it will help you a TON. Practice flowing all the time and develop better flowing methods. Watch the same round twice and see if your flow the second time is neater, easier to follow, and contains more information. Develop shorthand that makes it easier to flow. In short, keep flowing. Always.

Learn from the best. Watch rounds online. You learn a lot of imitating top debaters and learning from their strategies and arguments. If you are new to circuit debate, then there is no other way. If you don’t watch rounds online, it is going to be near impossible to have the possibility of succeeding at circuit debate because you won’t understand words or arguments. There are a lot of great debate rounds from this season available at http://vbriefly.com/category/videos/.

II: Learn Theory.

Learning theory is a must for the circuit, especially for new circuit debaters and ones from small schools. Whether you learn it as a strategy or learn it so you can beat it, you have to understand theory, and I think that there are two main reasons why debaters new to the circuit.

First, theory is the equalizing advantage for small school debaters. It really is, there is no way around that. Larger schools will always be ahead on substance debates. They just have more resources, more coaches, access to scholarly journals, and access to coaches that know what to look for. They just are going to always have more prep. While you certainly can compensate for that by working smarter not harder and having a great substantive strategy that you know really well and are really prepped for, it’s always going to be an uphill battle and it’s going to be hard to fight back against the mountains of prep that larger, established circuit schools bring to the game and the prep-outs that follow. One way to counteract this prep imbalance is theory. Theory doesn’t require access to tons of resources, it doesn’t require scholarly journals that require money to download, or access to top level national circuit coaches. Theory requires you to think smart. That’s about it. Anyone can run theory, anyone can get good at theory. All that it requires to get good at theory is to have a decent understanding of the mechanics about theory, prep on the basics, and to just write shells whenever you can. And this counteracts prep imbalance because no matter how much prep someone gives someone else on theory, theory is about knowing the arguments and your opponent probably just won’t know it. If they aren’t good at theory, then you can always win by being smarter about theory. It doesn’t matter that your opponent was given a 100 page theory file by his teammates, if you’re just better at theory, you’re almost always going to win. Theory is how small school debaters equalize the playing field.

Many people will respond that theory is actually one of the most esoteric parts of modern LD debate that actually excludes people from learning about theory who can’t afford to go to camps or hire private coaches. I think this claim has some truth. Being from a non-circuit school myself, it was not easy to learn about theory. However, I think that nowadays, theory is way more accessible than before and many people can get good at theory. For example, the above point about watching rounds. Many rounds now contain complex theory debates that people can watch and learn from. Disclosure has spread to theory shells and many of the interps that are run in modern day LD are disclosed on the NDCA wiki. And if you literally just google “ld theory shells”, there are tons of results, from articles discussing how to run theory in LD to an entire theory file that includes full shells from a TOC qualified debater. So, I believe that theory is not inaccessible; rather, I believe that all new comers to circuit debate should take the time to learn theory and get good at it.

Second, theory is also just a plain necessity. People are always going to run theory against you and people are always going to be super abusive and tricky. If you don’t know how to run theory, or at least respond to theory, then you are basically just going to automatically lose every time. Learning theory is just another type of argument that you have to learn how to run and beat if you’re going to do circuit debate. If you don’t learn theory, people are going to get away with running super abusive cases that place 10 burdens on you that you have to meet or else you lose, or people are going to run theory against your perfectly legitimate case just because you don’t know it so automatically lose. If you’re going to learn circuit debate, you have to learn theory.

So learn theory. It’s something you have to know to succeed at circuit debate and a viable avenue for success if that’s what you’re about. No matter how you approach theory, whether as a strategic tool to win rounds or as a necessary evil that you have to learn to beat, you have to learn theory.

III: Have a Strategy.

I think a fundamental problem with many debaters approach to circuit tournaments, especially if they are new or from a small school is that they assume that the best way to prepare for the tournament is to write as many blocks as possible, both in terms of covering different positions and the number of answers they have to each particular position. While debaters definitely need blocks, I think it is misguided to approach a circuit tournament (or any tournament for that matter) by just writing as many answers as you can possibly write. What I believe is a more preferable approach is to have a cohesive strategy. What this means is to think about the round as a whole and not about particular arguments (though particular arguments are very important as well). You shouldn’t just write a bunch of affirmative cases, you should be writing a couple of affirmative cases that you know well, that you know how you’re going to extend those cases, and that you know how to explain those cases to win you the round. Cutting cards is only important because it helps you win the round. You can win arguments all over the place, but if those don’t win you the round, then you’re wasting your time. Strategy is much more important than cutting a lot of cards (though cutting a lot of cards is also very important). Think about it. It’s better to have a set of strategies that you can run 80% of rounds and be fairly confident in than to have a bunch of blocks that might cover most everything but you aren’t entirely sure of because you never saw how it functioned in round. Top debaters will almost always agree: a well thought out strategy is preferable to a couple more cards that don’t really interact with the rest of the round. If what you care about is winning the round, then focus on a strategy before the tournament. If you only care about winning arguments, then go ahead and cut more cards.

For example, on this topic, most affirmatives are probably going to run some argument about how presumed consent increases donation rates. Instead of cutting 20 cards about how it doesn’t increase donation rates (which itself is a bad strategy because it’s all just defense), it’s better to think of the big picture and how to beat that argument. So if that is the primarily argument on the affirmative, one possible negative strategy is to read an autonomy based negative case that is well-frontlined, answer the framework, and then read one or two good cards about how the aff doesn’t solve/worsens donation rate problems. This is a full cohesive round strategy that, if well-prepared, writes a nice ballot story that explains why the negative should win the round. And honestly, being fully prepared on this type of approach doesn’t take that much more time than cutting all of those cards and is a much better allocation of that time. Obviously, this is a really simplistic strategy, but you get the point. Writing a couple of really good strategies for each side, e.g. explaining how your case precludes theirs, or how your particular counterplan is the best ever, and explaining how you win the round is a much better allocation of your pre-tournament preparation time than just mindlessly cutting cards.

So, when approaching circuit debate, I would say that it is a better to have a cohesive strategy that you can run most rounds, as opposed to more blocks that you aren’t entirely sure of what they say or how they interact with arguments in the round. A strategy that explains how you win the round is always preferable to a bunch of cards that may or may not win you a single argument.


Circuit debate can be daunting, especially if you don’t know exactly how to prepare for it. Hopefully, this article is a good start to preparing for circuit debate and circuit tournaments.

If you want a list of other videos or articles to read about joining circuit LD debate, or just need some help with debate, feel free to email me at lwzhou10@gmail.com.