Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers

Diplomatic View: Intentional Grounding

Each week Christian Williams reflects on the major themes, the key points, and the anecdotes from the latest episode of Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers in Diplomatic View. He also responds to your comments and discusses your talking points. Diplomatic View should post on Sunday mornings or as early as Saturday evening.

Diplomatic View: Intentional Grounding

Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers

As I’ve said before, tribe shuffling episodes are awesome for television viewers. I’ve complained that if they occur too early in the show, they can hijack the games of good players due to bad luck, but I concede that they also give players a chance to overcome that and prove they’re bonafide in the process. This season we got an early tribe shuffle, just three weeks in and the distribution of players was more even than it usually is, with only one tribe featuring a strict majority. This week also showed us that the producers have upped their game when it comes to advantages.

Almost everyone who writes anything about Survivor, whether it’s 140 characters or 5,000 words, has an opinion on immunity idols and advantages. They originally became part of the game as a way of adding some additional drama and doubt so that the group with a strict numbers advantage didn’t always calmly execute their opponents. While the game has evolved so that there’s a lot more fluidity to alliances, they still have a place in adding drama to the game and making players try to account for the possibility that an idol is out there.


More recently, the producers have shaken things up with various advantages, legacy and otherwise. These have been a mix of vote stealing, general immunity, and immunity that can only be used at a certain point in the game. Not all advantages are created equal; we’ve seen players use advantages only to get sent home anyway and we’ve seen the use of an idol wipe away the benefit of an advantage. Last season, I had a fair amount to say about immunity idols after the Game Changers finale where Cirie went home.

My point, in summary, wasn’t that there were too many idols or advantages… it was that the power was (and honestly still is) skewed too heavily in favor of the hidden immunity idol. It’s because the player of a hidden immunity idol gets to wait until all other available information has passed: played advantages, testimony at tribal council, the amount of time players take to vote, their body language after. Being able to process all of that information and their competitor’s responses to the announcement that the player is going to play an idol gives an overwhelming advantage to the player of the idol to make a correct play (though players do still botch it).


Because many of the game advantages were immunity idols, and players either had to hold them for specific tribals or held on to them because they weren’t in danger, that led to some tribals with more players immune than not. My argument last season was that how idols are played should change, with them needing to be put in the voting urn when the player who holds them votes, so that there’s at least an extra element of doubt to their play, without really cutting down on the drama for the tribe or viewers. This season we’ve seen something of a course-correction regarding advantages that I might like better.

One of the complications with the legacy advantage, and similar powers, is players either had to hold them late game or could choose when to play them (in the case of super idols and the like). From a producer’s and viewer’s perspective, that meant they rarely added early game drama, so this season there’s a noted difference. While we still have the existing hidden immunity idols played the same way, this season we’ve had two “use ‘em or lose ‘em” advantages, where the player has no option to hoard the power for a later day. I think it’s a great adjustment to the game, and even if it doesn’t reduce the number of advantages, it certainly reduces the amount we’ll see played at any one time. It also means that we’ll have a potential for more open/dynamic play early in the game as these occasional advantages come sprinkling out.


Factoring into those earlier use of advantages is the question of trying to manipulate your competitor’s so that your advantage has as much impact as possible, as we saw in this week’s episode with Joe (theoretically) trying to get the majority three to focus their attention on him. It’s a difficult task that players have tried before, not necessarily successfully. While there have been players with a gift for manipulation or bullying on the small scale, getting one person to change their vote or go along with them, doing this on the larger scale of the entire tribe isn’t necessarily a winning play for two reasons.

The largest reason is that people who are playing Survivor now, are generally at least vaguely familiar with how the game works. If a single player starts to act brazenly and brashly, antagonizing the majority alliance and generally sticking out like a sore thumb… they’re going to wonder if that person has an immunity idol and at least consider not pointing their votes in that player’s direction. As was the case this week, this becomes something of a Princess Bride situation with players trying to figure out who has the immunity to Iocaine powder this week. Unless the immunity idol holder stands alone, both sides will have to guess regarding what the other side is doing, and the stratagem isn’t all that likely to work.

The bigger issue I have with this strategy is that you have one immunity idol, it’s good for an extra three days on the island… and if you don’t find another you’re still potentially facing the wrong side of a vote. Even if the use of an idol is going to break a tie, and give a player’s alliance a majority, there can be continuing ramifications of having so blatantly painted a target on yourself.

The clearest ramification is, depending on how the player served themselves up, they can stratify the sides in their tribe. By making things acrimonious, and having players on both sides dig into their respective positions, a player may remove the chance of re-aligning loyalties for the next tribal council down the road. In extreme circumstances, a player might make a former majority alliance, that now finds itself in a tie, willing to go to rocks rather than work with players on the other side. This could even expose the idol-playing contestant to betrayal by his/her own allies if they’re not willing to go to rocks at that point.


Even if a player plays decoy on behalf of their alliance, there’s also a tendency for the other players to remember the arguments, tension, and bad feelings, rather than the fact that it benefitted their future in the game. When numbers start to break down later in the game, it can make them lean to going forward with someone else, rather than the stalking horse that served them so well. This is muddied late game when that player can serve as a goat at final tribal council, but that’s also an argument against being acrimonious.

With the possible exception of Tony, players who have a highly confrontational style don’t easily win Survivor, and Tony only won because Woo made a mistake. Many players have gone to final tribal and paid a price for their willingness to draw lines in the sand, even when they would otherwise have been worthy winners. Dove-tailing on our ‘bitter jury’ discussion earlier in the year, if your fundamental strategy involves alienating people and making them hate you enough to want you gone… you might want to remember how voting works.

On Survivor, we see a lot of players fall in love with their ephemeral power, and not consider that while they may be in good position at tribal council, it’s only one of many that they must face to win a million dollars. In the short-term, getting yourself targeted so your idol is more powerful is a great idea… but unless the player has another idol at hand, they might want to try a strategy that’s less likely to get them voted off next time.


hhh-barDiplomatic Notes

Damnbueno chimed in on last week’s article, with a detailed note regarding physical challenge competitors, and successful players’ tendency to try to play under the radar.

I’m curious, what are your thoughts on sandbagging? Many players have admitted to doing it including Michaela, Troyzan & Aubry (last season), Nick, Tasha (in Cambodia), Laura M. & Gervase (BvW), Erik (Caramoan), and one of the best at it is Malcolm in Philippines. Three players have parlayed a sandbagging strategy into a win — Aras, Yul and Jeremy.

Sandbagging is an interesting question. When we’re rating players on their physical ability, we’re mostly trying to gauge whether they can, if presented the chance, go on an individual immunity run. As damnbueno pointed out in his comment (you should really read it) most players that show that physical capability early, as we’ve alluded to, end up packing their bags pre-merge. Everyone wants that physical wonder to get them to the merge– no one wants them to rack up individual immunity wins (ala Fabio) post-merge.  The possible exception is the almost never successful ‘alpha alliance’, which features a number of physically strong players with a goal of manly duking it out at the end of the game with a rocking soundtrack in the background.

From my perspective, I’m hesitant to call it sandbagging, since in my mind that implies actively doing badly at challenges. However, I certainly think there’s a reasonable strategy of dialing down your capabilities to ‘solid’, rather than being outstanding, with one clear proviso. While showing yourself to be outstanding can put you in bad shape, being a safe and solid player on a tribe that loses challenges is not significantly safer. For me, I think competitors in the initial immunity/fire challenge should do what they need to do for their tribe to win if they don’t have to go 100% effort to do that all the better. After that, they should try to position themselves in secondary spots in the challenges, as long as the tribe is doing well.

Post-merge, my preference is to have my diplomacy shine definitively, not my challenge aptitude. If you’re in enough control of the game, you likely don’t need to have immunity until you’re at the latter stages when you want to win to keep it out of the hands of your target.

Long story short, I agree competitors should hide their light under a bushel basket pre-merge… if their tribe can still find safety.

Michael Trudeau pointed out that we don’t really have a sense of how Lauren swayed votes until we get an interview from her but also noted a tribal council dynamic we don’t discuss often:

The vast majority of TCs would have had the same results if the players didn’t talk to Jeff at all but went directly to the voting booth.

This is true for the vast majority of tribal councils, but that’s not the same as saying the discussion with Jeff doesn’t have any effect at all. While it’s a rarity that the vote at a tribal council changes as a result of the questions and discussions, it does happen. It may happen a bit more than we realize in cases where a swing vote is in the offing, but I’m willing to say it’s been less than a dozen times in the history of the game. The fallout from revelations at tribal? I think that’s a different story entirely. We’ve seen far more cases where a tribe goes to tribal and votes one way, and then at the very next tribal the winds swing the other way.

While there are a lot of factors that drive that result, one of them can be what was said at the previous tribal council. It’s difficult to re-strategize right in front of Jeff (Gamechangers being the exception that proved the rule), but pivoting after that happens all the time. It’s one of the reasons I’m a major proponent of making your answers to Jeff as vague, general, and non-specific as possible.hhh-bar Key Points in Ep 4: I Don’t Like Having Snakes Around

Playing Tic-Tac-Toe when others are playing chess.

One of the most difficult things to do when playing Survivor is getting an accurate read on the complicated web of interweaved dynamics that control the game. It can be surprisingly easy to look at the results of one action, see that they’re positive, and learn entirely the wrong lesson from them. Which brings us to Cole. Last week, in the midst of bonding with Jess, Cole shared the secret about Joe’s idol. He was successful in tightening his relationship with her as a result and the two of them began plotting to potentially get rid of Joe if they went to tribal. That was a reasonably good play.

As I pointed out last week, his eagerness to then tell every member of the tribe this information, was a bad misplay. It opened up the possibility of one of those notables betraying his confidence to Joe (if only as a way at striking at the ‘coupled up’ Cole and Jessica). It was a mistake, but one that actually didn’t fall out in any appreciable way for him, except that it made Jessica doubt his reliability. We know Jessica mentioned in confessional that she saw it as a mistake, and I’m guessing she likely made subtle indications to Cole that echoed that. This should have been a lesson learned.

Fast forward to this week, and the tribe swap. Cole finds himself on the one tribe where the Healers have a clear numbers advantage, with three healers and two stragglers from other tribes. To add frosting to that cake, Jessica finds an advantage in a bag of chips, and shares that with Cole and the Sex Doctor, Mike. This could not have been a better situation for Cole to find himself in… and he did a thorough job of making a mess of it by immediately giving that information to Lauren and Ben.

It’s a sign of just how poor of an idea this was, that Lauren immediately wondered why Cole would be sharing this information with his opponents, and immediately thinks he might be lying to her, which is doubly ironic since his goal was to build up their trust in him.

The biggest fallout from this break in trust, though, is Jessica. After attempting to lie about having revealed her secrets, about thirty seconds later her comes partially clean admitting he told Ben. From her confessionals, it’s clear that whatever doubts his first mistake raised in her mind, she doesn’t see this as a mistake she sees it as a clear betrayal. This is likely made a bit worse because the trust she had in gameplay terms, was wrapped up in her burgeoning personal feelings for Cole. Regardless of any future fallout on a personal level, Cole has substantively proved to Mike and Jessica that he can’t be trusted with information… that should limit his game future drastically.


Sometimes it’s the fall that kills you, not the landing.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Alan in this space. His play up to this point had alienated parts of his original tribe and made him ripe for an early boot. If you’d told me he was going home this week, I wouldn’t have been surprised… but in watching the actual episode play out, his elimination had nothing to do with his previous mistakes.

Ending up with Ashley on his shuffled tribe, with two Healers as well as Devon, he and Ashely were forced to come together to form a duo. It might have been different had one of the healers not been Joe and if Desi and Joe hadn’t made a combined play for Devon’s loyalty.  Given that a clear division had formed, the pair had little choice but to work on winning Devon’s loyalty, and it worked for them as Devon found Alan relatable and Ashley trustworthy. Unfortunately for Paul, his willingness to put himself on the front lines of the argument with Joe meant that Joe and Desi targeted him when Joe played his idol it meant that Alan went home.

While Alan showed us traces of the calmer, more social player that he might have been capable of, there was still a little too much aggression or Joe and Desi might have targeted Ashley (a more social threat). Alan is an intriguing player, that I’d be interested in seeing get a second chance at Survivor. The major flaw in his game is needing to realize how fluid alliances on Survivor can be, and that the best way to give yourself a chance to survive an ever-changing game is to occasionally dial the personality down to eleven for a few weeks.


Postcards from the Edge

Beyond the interesting aspect of the advantage being ephemeral and having to be used this week, was the fact that the advantage was also transferable. Unlike other times someone received a gift or advantage in the game, this particular postcard effectively removed a player from the equation, and they had no way of knowing it until they read the news at tribal. You had to feel a bit sorry for Devon, since until he read it out loud he’d been riding a high, knowing he had the numbers, and knowing he had some kind of advantage only to have the rug pulled completely out from under him.

The biggest question that I came away from it was why Jessica sent it Devon, and not to Ashley or Alan. This decision is particularly baffling given that Jessica had perfect information. She knew Devon was likely to be a swing vote, she knew that Joe had an idol, and she knew that Alan and Ashley were likely to be a concerted block against Joe and Desi. Eliminating Devon as the swing vote, seemed to eliminate the possibility that Desi / Joe would bring Devon onto their side, allowing them to preserve the immunity idol for later.

On the other hand, we’re not sure how much time they had to consider the situation, and if she thought it was possible that Joe wouldn’t play the idol in defense of Desi, maybe guaranteeing a two-two tie would have been the best way to give Desi a chance to continue in the game.


  • Kudos to Ryan for managing to convince Chrissy that he gave her the idol for a reason other than her perceived weakness.
  • Joe is taking an early edge over Tony in ‘Lies told that didn’t help his cause’.
  • I’m 50/50 on whether Joe ‘read Ashley’s eyes’, or whether he was simply protecting his own rear-end.
  • There was a contestant named Roark in this episode, for the first time ever.

hhh-barClosing Thoughts and the Road Ahead

I’m generally loathe to trust the previews for anything other than Jeff narrating game developments. While I believe it when they show him saying ‘Drop Your Buffs’, I’m reluctant to think that we’re going to see Devon and Stacey pull rocks if they go back to tribal council. Still, there are plenty of interesting plot lines for the next few weeks as things shake out on the new tribes. We still have several healers who haven’t had to put their loyalty to the test, and we have Cole putting strain on his relationship with Jessica. Is there a chance Sex Doctor Mike could be tempted to form an alliance with Lauren and Ben? Would that be better than being the odd hero out? It’s something worth exploring if you’re him, as he’s somewhere to the outside of the Healer’s alliance.


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