Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: Toeing the Line

Diplomatic View dives into each week’s episode of Survivor, looking at who’s winning, who’s losing, and most importantly: how they’re doing it.

Diplomatic View: Toeing the Line

Survivor Game Changers: Toeing the Line

One of the parts of Survivor that I find the most fascinating, and if you’ve been reading the Diplomatic View each week you know that there are several of those, is that we get a much clearer view of the game board than the players who are in the game. While our view is filtered by the editors, sometimes that filter illuminates, rather than obfuscates. Sometimes our view of the board gives us the chance to see missed opportunities, where players are floundering and don’t realize that if they asked the right person the right question they may have saved their game. So much of Survivor is about keeping a wide open view of the game, that the lack of that vision is inherent in our term for getting taken out of the game unexpectedly: #Blindside.

Survivor is a game of imperfect, incomplete, but acquirable information. There are two ways in which this most affects gameplay, one of which has started to become more prominent in recent years. Perhaps the characteristic that lets us, as fans, most easily characterize people on the shows as competitors instead of also-rans, is how we see them adjust to the game. Do they try to get a more complete picture of the game; do they work to get an advantage? Instead, are they content knowing that they have allies that are doing so, assuming that the ally will share whatever advantage he/she gets with them?

Part of the reason why we continuously hear great players talk about the work they put into talking with members of their tribe is so that they can attack the first aspect of acquirable information on Survivor. It gives them a picture into the dynamics on their tribe, both within their alliance, and outside of their alliance, and it’s something that goes beyond what people are actually willing to tell them. There are dozens of cues to potential trouble that can be spotted that won’t come from someone telling you that alliances are shifting in a tribe: are people who haven’t normally spent a lot of time talking together now doing so, have people shifted whom they sleep near in the shelter at night, has someone who spends a lot of time looking for idols suddenly stopped doing so, has a person who has always seemed nervous and seeking reassurance gained a measure of confidence, or is someone avoiding talking to you alone because they know they can’t keep secrets? A player who is trying to acquire information, and keeping his/her eyes open on what his/her tribemates are doing can see a sign of shifting alliances in these behaviors, which can be either an opportunity for them, or a danger to them… but a player who isn’t watching won’t see any of these things.

The second aspect, which we’ve seen happen more in recent seasons, is acquirable advantages. Of course there are hidden immunity idols scattered around the island in every other tree it seems, but there are also clues and advantages hidden at: initial maroon supply grabs, hidden in bottles as part of feasts and rewards, hidden at challenges (best development ever), and I’m pretty sure one of these years Jeff will carry a clue around that he’ll give to the first player who asks for a clue or advantage. While players need to have a bit more subtlety than Tony did this season, from the second your feet hit the sand your head needs to be on a swivel. Survivor is a game about social gameplay, but some of the advantages we’ve seen can completely wipe out intricately designed plans, so it’s in a player’s best interest to try and acquire some of those advantages for themselves.

The most dangerous thing for a player in this game, beyond the risk of a medevac, is when they decide that enough is enough. Players decide that they have enough influence, enough power, or enough information so they can sit back and relax and take a bit of time off from the game. There are several players where this seems to have led to their downfall, Michelle on Millennials vs Gen X, Brenda of Nicaragua and Caramoan and, to a degree, Rob Mariano when he gave Russell enough space to get Tyson to make a voting mistake. We saw two extremes of voluntary blindness on this week’s episode, both of which were quite disappointing.


We’ll start with Debbie, and the fact that no Survivor player should ever find herself saying that there is no chance that someone from her alliance will flip, and that there is a line drawn in concrete for the divisions on their beach. The only time when you can be confident that there is no chance that a vote will come that will send you home is when you’re at final tribal council. When there are eleven players left in the game, the chances that the eight players you haven’t included in your final three alliance are all going to calmly walk away from tribal in your prescribed order are… not so good. Beyond the possibility that someone in Debbie’s own alliance would decide they weren’t happy with the lay of the land, Debbie herself described the opposition as a solid group of five… which should be an issue of concern not one that made her think her numbers advantage was unassailable.

Debbie’s superpower has always been her outsized sense of self-assuredness. It was, in part, key to her engineering Ozzy’s ouster last week, and it’s allowed her to navigate through the Survivor waters with players who were, in many cases, better players than she is. When that self-assuredness has her deciding to go after a Brad or an Ozzy it comes across as a little crazy, but ironically it’s not that bad for her game. Her quests to take on these players lead her to talk to other players in the game, gives them a chance to talk her off of the edge, and sometimes those conversations actually lead to her forming an alliance against whomever her target is. She can be polarizing during those conversations, and the players who find themselves on the outside don’t tend to forget it, but that’s actually a better alternative to what happens when Debbie feels she’s secure.

At the point that Debbie feels her alliance’s position is secure, her game tends to become more of a question of where she sits within her alliance (as we saw in a secret scene from Episode Seven), rather than making sure that her alliance stays together. What’s unfortunate about this aspect of Debbie’s playstyle, and why I don’t think she’ll ever make it to final tribal council, is that Debbie seems to need to have it established that she’s in control of the pecking order… and the last thing you want is to make the pecking order in your alliance obvious. Speaking to general game aspects (i.e. the importance of numbers) is one thing, but in order to get far you have to be able to make every single member of your alliance think that they’re part of your plans for the final. The second people get even a sniff of doubt about that, your game is in jeopardy. Debbie’s microaggressions regarding her place in the alliance, went a long way towards the eventual flip of numbers in this episode, in part because of what it meant for Brad and Sierra’s behavior.  As I said in a previous article, the perception of power can be the actualization of power… but in a season of Game Changers, the perception of power can also lead to the actualization of revolution. Zeke did it last week and badly hurt his chances… Sarah did it this week to far better effect.


The other aspect of blindness, perhaps literally in this case, was Michaela’s at the reward challenge where she seemed not to notice the game advantage that was sitting right at her feet. Now– I love Michaela– I’ve written volumes about her in previous articles, and in previous seasons, about how much I like her and think she can win the game if she can clamp down on some of her reactionary tendencies. In all honesty, she might not be able to control that tendency to reaction. It’s something that I can relate to, because there is a difference between objectively knowing what you should have done while standing outside of a situation, and then actually doing it when you’re in that situation. I, personally, have had that issue in my life and it’s something that there are still moments where I struggle with it (most of those involve being on the phone with technical support).

I would have been willing to assign her petulant reaction to not being picked to an act, just a bit of gamesmanship to get people to think she was still being petulant, except for the fact that there was a clearly marked clue at her feet that she didn’t take any notice of. No amount of gamesmanship is worth passing up an advantage in the game, period. So, I have to accept that Michaela’s maturity level isn’t quite where it needs to be in order to ever win this game. While I don’t have a doubt that her vision of the playing field is good, which she showed in her first season and in spots during this season, she’s prone to moments of blindness when she can’t see past her personal feelings. This week that end result cost her a chance to at least try to take control of the game (more on the thorniness of using the vote steal later), and put that power solidly in the hands of Sarah.

I’m also honestly not sure how much Michaela is in the know regarding the shifts in what’s happening at tribal. I believe she knew Sarah had flipped her vote, and she was playing a part until the votes had been cast. That much is backed up by her bringing of snacks for the show (as someone pointed out on Twitter, if you see Michaela eating at tribal, things are about to go down). We didn’t see her playing a core role in the negotiations with Sarah, though, or in discussions with others regarding what was about to go down. The sense that she’s being carried by Cirie as a loyal number and doesn’t have a greater role in the alliance has only been reinforced in the last few episodes.

I’m reminded of the words of Max Euwe, mathmetician and Duth Grandmaster:

Strategy requires thought, tactics require observation.

Without strategy, there’s no point to your game, Survivor just becomes sort of a bad vacation… without tactics you have no way to achieve your strategy. Michaela is able to see a large strategic picture… but she does a poor job of applying the vision she needs to create the tactics to get her there.


Diplomatic Disqus

Andy Pfeiffer simply won’t stop writing interesting things:

Sarah may be the one to instigate it and this too goes back to veterans modeling their game after their season’s winner. The problem is Sarah can’t pull off what Tony did for four reasons. One, people have seen Cagayan and know what to watch for. Two, her more compassionate personality is not suited to backstabbing everybody. Three, she doesn’t have a Trish as a trusting partner to put fires out. Four, did this cast put up with Tony’s crap? If she dances between alliances and plays them against each other, she needs to do it subtly. Nobody’s going to trust her if she puts a knife in everybody’s back. Two sides may form a truce just to get rid of an uncountable variable.

In the various discussions over what player would be the one to make ‘the leap’ this season, I am fairly certain I never uttered the name of Sarah. Partly this is a case of me simply not being that impressed by her first season of play; she was fairly easily snowed by Tony and didn’t seem to make a lot of moves on her own.  Her early play this season didn’t do much to change that perception. But this was an extremely good episode for her, focused on her gameplay, her situational awareness, and her choices. I have nothing but good things to  say about everything she did this week, and I don’t think she plans to dance back to her previous alliance, but form a tight core that takes out the stragglers.

Unfortunately, I think she’s doomed to failure but it won’t be based on her issues or problems. It will be because she’s in a very visible position and the alliance on the other side has all of the idols ever made.

Patti Renshaw chimed in with some insight from a secret scene.

Did you all see the scene where Sierra is talking with Debbie & refered to brad troyzan & Tai like”herding cats”? it was kinda putting all the guys down at once lol

I generally don’t watch the secret scenes for a week until after I’ve written my article. Mostly because it gives me a much better window to be wrong to the amusement of all of you, and partly because I try to come to my article just from my impressions (sometimes I’ll watch them after I write my outline, though). I will say this, if Sierra manages to get to final three with her preferred players, she will rocket into the top 10, possibly the top 5, of Survivor winners. This is due simply to the degree of difficulty of getting players like Troyzan, Brad, and Tai consistently pointed in the same direction.  While players like Cirie, Aubry, and Zeke are individually more dangerous, that paradoxically means they’re often easier to influence into making the write move for the alliance as a whole. Until they’ve decided it’s time to make a move they, generally, are more willing to vote to the benefit of their group– Zeke’s spasm last week being an exception to the rule. Troyzan, Brad, and Tai are three very different players, and getting them aligned has to be mentally exhausting.

Lastly, Christian Bugia hit on a key component of why the line was drawn in quicksand and not concrete:

When they lost the Marshalls Spa Day – Sarah in a confessional said that she has options and she will go with the group that will vote the person she wanted to go. And we all know she wants Ozzy gone during the Varner boot.

While I can’t blame Andrea and Cirie for wanting Zeke gone, Sarah’s reluctance to vote out Zeke and willingness to vote out Ozzy was a deciding factor in what happened last week. Once they were past that vote, however, Sarah had no reason to stay with the Brad / Sierra / Debbie alliance and every reason to slide back to the other side. Last week’s vote was less of a sea change, and more of a blip targeting a specific player (similar to Natalie White getting the women of the Galu tribe to vote out Erik Cardona).


Key Points in Episode Eight: A Line Drawn in Concrete

Leaning In (Cirie)

Cirie is considered to be a legend of the game, someone who has never gotten her chance to stand in front of final tribal, but who would likely have won if she did. This is a categorization that I completely agree with, and she displayed why that is again this week. We’ve already talked about the fact that Sarah’s vote last week was more anti-Ozzy than it was pro-Brad, but it would have been easy for those in the minority to misread that situation and target either Troyzan or Tai to try to split them from the majority alliance. Instead, Cirie put the work into talking with Sarah.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Cirie is how she couches an argument, making it sound like she’s not trying to convince you to go her way. She has this method of conversational jujitsu where she manages to get the person she’s talking with to almost push her to say the argument she was always aiming for (witness the reinforcement of the actions speak louder than words argument with Erik on Fans vs Favorites).  There’s something in human nature that makes a statement seem truer when you’ve had to coax the other person to ‘reluctantly’ admit it, as opposed to if they offer it up unprompted. Of course, it means if you don’t get the person to that conversational point then you’ll need to do so later… but it’s an acceptable risk when you have a few days to have the conversation.

The part that didn’t get much camera time this week was the selection of targeting. One of the biggest mistakes players make is getting picky about who goes home. We’ve seen attempts to coalesce an alliance of disparate players falter because one player is insistent on a target that others are unwilling to go after. In the end, the question a player needs to ask themselves is whether the person going home improves their chances. If that answer is yes, regardless of degree, then there’s no reason to make the decision one you’ll die on (ironically Debbie showed this herself, not insisting on Michaela being voted out).


Playing the Kind of Game You Want to Play (Zeke)

Last week Zeke took himself out of a solid alliance with Andrea and Cirie because he found the closeness of those two players a threat to his game. Unfortunately for Zeke, instead of becoming part of the core of the opposing alliance he became an outrider… someone whom they dictated votes to, rather than someone they worked with. Without their trust or a voice in the alliance, it’s easy for him to see that it’s not the kind of game he wants to play because it’s a game that sends him home fairly early. Luckily for him, Sarah is no more interested in being on the bottom of a dominant alliance either and the two of them were able to join with Cirie and Andrea.

The problem for Zeke is, unlike Sarah, he’s not going to get a lot of credit for anything that happened in the last two weeks when the final tribal council comes; and that’s assuming he makes it there. Zeke’s initial betrayal weakened the numbers and made it possible for Ozzy to go home, and this week he was a key number in the vote against Debbie… but Sarah will be seen as the one who flipped it. This puts Zeke in an extremely awkward position, because while he doesn’t want his vote dictated to him at this point, he needs to ride closely in Sarah’s wake but he has to get her out of the game before final tribal.

In fact, looking at the current roster of players I don’t think there’s any way Zeke can win this game. He needs to eliminate from the game: Brad, Sierra, Andrea, Aubry, Cirie, and Sarah and go to final tribal with two of the following three: Michaela, Tai, and Troyzan. While no one would say that any of those three outplayed him, Michaela might pull enough bitter votes, and Tai might pull enough ‘nice guy’ votes, to say nothing of the fact that the eliminations needed are a difficult path.


Representative Democracy (Debbie)

Debbie had a really good week last week, some folks disagreed with the amount of credit I gave her (looking at you damnbueno), but she had a really good week. She accumulated some diplomatic chips, she was well positioned in her alliance, they’d faced their first tests in terms of how things would play out and they’d shifted towards controlling the game. Even with the work Cirie did and Zeke’s willingness to flip, it wasn’t guaranteed that Sarah would flip the game and turn on the majority alliance.

But beyond all of the issues of self-assuredness, situational awareness, and jockeying for position, Debbie made one of the most basic mistakes of any conman. She didn’t make sure that the story she was telling matched the story the rest of her alliance was telling. I’m sure by now people are tired of me referencing poor Erik and the Black Widows, but the key aspect of that scheme was that the actions by every single member of the group built a consistent story that made sense in the context they were telling it and with the history of Fans vs Favorites to that point.

Natalie told a story of a Cirie who was willing to vote against Parvati, but who didn’t trust Erik because of his history of deception in the game. They built up this messaging on the beach, and they built up the messaging in tribal council. Each argument was a pebble dropped into the pond until the resonance built up a tidal wave the swamped Erik right out of the game.

The counter to that is what Debbie did this week. Sierra, possibly recognizing that Sarah could see she was six of six, did a beautiful job of spinning a picture for Sarah of a final three deal. Whether Sierra meant it is somewhat irrelevant. She told it well enough to get Sarah thinking that maybe she didn’t want to flip on the power alliance after all. The problem for Sierra was that in the meantime Debbie was spinning tales about Sarah that would, predictably, get back to Sarah immediately.

In the words of Al Pacino from Glengarry Glen Ross: ‘You never open your mouth until you know what the play is.’  It’s quite possible that Debbie didn’t know what kind of story Sierra was spinning, but if she was aware I’m not sure it would have made a difference. The angle that Debbie was spinning required someone in the main alliance to be a scapegoat and Debbie was never going to pick someone for that other than Sarah. Debbie’s play, in a general way, isn’t a problem… keeping Aubry on the hook as a potential future vote is a fine idea… but the method of doing it introduced a variable that quickly ran out of her control.

As a side note: A Democracy is constructed on the principle that everyone agrees on obeying the orders of a specific person. Just saying.


Recognizing Game (Sarah)

One of the (many) derivations of the phrase ‘Toe the Line’, is from very early prizefighting, where it referenced the line drawn across the ‘ring’ in toe-to-toe boxing matches. Competitors would toe the line before a bout would begin, and anyone who was brave enough to enter such a fight was dubbed ‘up to scratch’. This episode showed Sarah putting her foot on the line and declaring herself a contender for the title of ‘Most Improved’ player this season. I’ll admit that I didn’t see a possibility of this happening, but this episode where there was every opportunity to zig in the wrong direction, she maintained the correct course. The unfortunate thing is I’m not sure how well this will work out for her long-term.

Sarah decided last week to vote out Ozzy, but was under no illusions that this put her in with the core of the power alliance. Positioned in any spot but the top three, she kept her options open and looked at the entire board, seeing the possibility of shuffling the deck into a better configuration. Conversations with Zeke and Cirie cemented that there were better possibilities than being the 6th out of 6, and she pulled the trigger on a move. There were many aspects of this move that I liked.

First, Sarah didn’t tip her hand with vague language at the tribal council that would have brought an idol into play (in fact it seems doubtful she knows that there are idols on the side of the power alliance). She kept with the party line of six that would be targeting out five, right up until it became time for her to write down her vote. All too often we see players who tip their hand because they fall victim to giving too much information to Jeff’s questions, so it was refreshing to see someone manage to avoid that.

Additionally, Sarah didn’t make the mistake of using her extra vote as insurance in case someone else flipped. For her, there was no reason to do so because the vote wasn’t going to put her in any danger. If someone else flipped, then Andrea would have gone home six to five, and Sarah could have claimed that she still voted with the majority.

The one quibble people might have is with her targeting of Debbie, who isn’t necessarily the ‘power’ in the power alliance. You can, correctly, attribute that partly to Debbie making it personal by lying about her… but I actually think it was a strategically good move particularly for Sarah. Sarah’s presence as a power player in the game is relatively recent, and there are several other threats still in the game higher on her radar. She can cleanly make the case that her move this week was pivotal if she stands in front of the jury, but for now she’s pretty safe on a target list behind Zeke, Cirie, Andrea, Brad and Sierra, depending on which side you’re viewing the list from. Plus, if you take out Brad or Sierra, the other is clearly left in charge of the remains of the alliance. By taking out Debbie, you destabilize it slightly and open up the chance for Sierra and Brad to jockey for who is in control.

I can’t disagree with any of the moves Sarah made this week.


The (Un)advantage

I admire Sarah’s goal to use the advantage as effectively as possible and agree, as I stated before, that it has yet to be used in a manner that was actually game effective. I don’t doubt that Sarah is going to try to use it effectively so that things fall in her favor, but I don’t believe she’s going to succeed. The issue is one of timing and that while stolen votes are nice, immunity trumps everything.

The problem is, once Sarah gets up to play her advantage, the other side will know that something is going on and that whatever plan they intended to pull off is in jeopardy. That’s when there will be a temptation for Tai or Troyzan to play their idols, either in self-defense or to defend their alliance. This is to say nothing of the potential of one of the four remaining alliance players winning immunity, a scenario which would allow that alliance to be entirely immune and force the other group to tear itself apart.

There’s a hierarchy of advantages on a show like Survivor. While immunity idols aren’t quite as strong as when they were playable after the votes were read, they will still trump things like extra and / or stolen votes. This is a function of the fact that they fully protect the player, and that they occur at the last possible point of vote timing. I don’t have a problem with this, because immunity is supposed to trump everything, but it makes it difficult for some wrinkles in the game to have more of an impact.



  • Debbie invented Democracy, and is planning to vote ‘None of the Above’ at Final Tribal.
  • Debbie’s first words to her Ponderosa companions: ‘Hi guys, don’t touch me I’m disgusting’.
  • Debbie’s daily workout makes me feel extremely lazy and unathletic.
  • How did no one else see Sarah collect the secret advantage?
  • Did I come to respect Sarah more because she echoed my thoughts on how the vote powers have historically had no effect?


Closing Points and Looking Ahead

The last two weeks haven’t quite been a reset of the entire game, despite what Zeke says in the trailer for next week. I do believe that the reshuffling isn’t quite done yet, as there are still five significant advantages floating around in the game (one of which won’t be active again until final 6). That makes for too many possibilities of primary targets being made safe by idols, and splashback knocking other players out of the game.

Regardless of what happens in the next few weeks, I don’t think we’ll have the worst case scenario that we were potentially facing. We won’t see a Pagonging of the Andrea / Cirie alliance, and the final three should have at least one worthy player sitting there… even if they’re straddled by Troyzan and Tai.


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