Strategic 1NC Construction

Raffi Piliero | Jul 27, 2021
6 min read


From novices who have little debate experience to seniors who are looking to make the 1AR’s job more challenging, nearly everyone could improve how they construct 1NCs. What do I mean by 1NC construction? I’m referring to both the strategic insight that goes into a 1NC (i.e. what specific CPs should be read, what disad is the likeliest 2NR, etc.), and some of the more specific time-based choices (i.e. how much time should be left for the case page, should I read a shorter version of this disad, etc.). While there’s certainly no hard and fast rule for what to do, there are some general guidelines and rules that can make 1NCs more difficult to navigate for the 1AR.

Think 2NR backwards

Debates are decided based on what positions/arguments the 2NR and 2AR go for, not the 1AC and 1NC. While this seems obvious, it’s something that debaters forget to keep in mind when crafting 1NCs (and 1ACs too, but that’s a whole different issue that I may circle back to in a later article). It’s important to think about:

1] What is the 2NR that will be best against this particular Aff?

2] How can I best set up this 2NR?

More specifically, you should go into each debate with a game plan about what 2NR you want to give. Many advanced debaters will construct a 1NC with quite a few viable options, but have no sense of which they plan to go for, or which is the best of those options. This matters for a number of reasons: the position you think is most likely to be extended is the one you should spend the most time pre-round (and pre-tournament) thinking about with coaches/writing blocks for, and the one you should likely invest the most time on, card-wise, in the 1NC. This isn’t to suggest you should be path-dependent; if the 1AR bungles another position, you should be able to extend it. However, having an idea of what the top 2NR you want to give ahead of time is incredibly helpful for determining how to allocate finite resources (prep pre-round and speech time). On a related note…

Stop reading positions you can’t go for

This is probably the problem that I see happen most often among decently-experienced debaters – throwing in a position as a “timesuck” that, either by virtue of being a silly argument or because of the brevity of the argument in the 1NC, cannot be extended unless completely dropped. Many debaters adopt this strategy because against less experienced debaters, this approach often works. You can throw in an under highlighted 1 card kritik or bad theory argument, have them spend far too much time on it, and go for something different. The problem is that further along in a tournament, better debaters know how to handle this. If an argument isn’t fully developed, they just won’t answer it.

Here’s an example to illustrate this – the 1NC includes a core topic counterplan (say, conditions on the military aid topic), but just a text with no solvency argument made. A less experienced debater might make 1 or more permutations, a theory argument, several carded solvency deficits, and maybe more. A more experienced debater knows they can blow this off; the 1AR realistically could spend all of 10 seconds saying “1] Permutation do both, 2] ______ evidence says that cutting off aid signals certainty which connects to our ____ impact 3] They haven’t read evidence that it solves or made a complete argument post-1NC, and they don’t get to now – no cheers for 2NR sandbagging” and move on. What makes this uniquely a problem for the neg is that, unlike in policy where there are constructives after the 1NC, the neg’s out of constructives in LD after the first. Making new solvency arguments in the 2NR generally will be disallowed, and even if successfully made, the 2AR’s the only speech that gets to debate them, leaving the neg 0 speeches for argument resolution.

The solution is to only put arguments in the 1NC that are complete and something that you could reasonably go for if answered thoroughly. You should always assume the best version of your opponent’s arguments; if they check all the boxes in the 1AR, could you still extend it? If the answer is no, don’t include it. This may lead to smaller 1NCs, but with efficient highlighting and card choices, it’s certainly possible to have a number of separate 2NR options without including throwaways.

Offense > Impact D

Impact defense is in most cases a complete waste of time. The terminal impact is usually one of the truest/most robustly defended part of any position. Assume the Aff has said:

-Arms sales to Saudi Arabia cost the US 20 billion a year
-Any further DOD expenses will require deficit spending, and have inflationary effects
-Spiking inflation forces Fed rate hikes
-Rate hikes tube the economy
-Econ decline = war

Obviously this argument has a number of very obvious problems: 20 billion isn’t the make or break for the deficit, but if the threshold is that low then a slew of other things should have triggered it, there’s no reason deficit spending will spur inflation any more than something like tax cuts would have, rate hikes are inevitable, and much more that you should be able to come up with. None of those problems are at the terminal impact level.

As mentioned earlier, a useful frame to think of this through is the 2NR backwards – if you get one argument against this advantage to hand the judge, would you rather it be a robust defense of the Aff’s expenses being a drop in the bucket, or spot the Aff that they bring down the entire US economy but that it probably won’t be a big deal?
Aside from just being poorer arguments, impact defense is a poor time-tradeoff. This isn’t universally true, but for the most part arguments in the 1NC should problematize parts of the 1AC that aren’t robustly defended. Forcing the 1AR to have to read a new card to answer a 1NC argument is much higher value than the 1AR regurgitating a 1-line extension of why economic decline causes war and moving on.

One obvious exception to this is if you’re impact turning the advantage – in that situation, impact defense is much more necessary because you’re conceding large parts of the advantage and saying that a specific impact is in fact good. With this same econ advantage example, assume instead the neg read dedev (that economic collapse is good to prevent catastrophic warming) – conceding in that situation that economic decline causes war would put the neg in a near unwinnable position from the outset.


Strategic 1NC construction is something that takes time to learn. Fortunately, it’s easy to practice and gameplan fairly far in advance, and improving at it will do wonders for setting up an easier 2NR, and for pressuring the 1AR.  

About the author:
Raffi Piliero debated for Harrison High School for 4 years, clearing twice at the TOC and finishing as bid leader his senior year. He’s currently a sophomore debating at Georgetown University, qualifying twice and clearing once at the National Debate Tournament. As a coach, his students have earned dozens of TOC bids, won several octas-bid tournaments, and reached the finals of the TOC.  

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

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