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The Survivor Strategic Game: Setting the Stage for Chaos

Throughout Survivor’s 28 seasons, players have been voted out for a wide variety of reasons. They screwed up a challenge, made life miserable at camp, or fell on the wrong side of the numbers. Sometimes their personalities just don’t click with the rest of the tribe. During the early stages, it takes very little to get your torch snuffed. Players are nervous about going home and look for any reason to avoid the target. This wasn’t the case with J’Tia. In only four episodes, she offered so many options for the others to choose from when choosing her as the next to go. Combining the disastrous shelter, frequent challenge mistakes, and the destruction of the rice makes quite a case for her removal. Of course, these same examples also build evidence that she’s the perfect choice to keep around for a long time.

This season has felt more like old-school Survivor in a lot of ways. The editing has focused on a larger group of people, the majority of the cast are fans, and there are no returnees. Heck, we even had a reward challenge (!!!) this week. Even so, the strategy remains very different from the early seasons. J’Tia’s massive failure in the puzzle would have doomed her in the first episode. The fact that she overcame that and so much more reminds us that we’re still in much different territory these days. If we believe the editing, J’Tia almost survived again despite blowing two challenges this week. Kass and Tasha still gave serious consideration to booting Spencer despite his superiority in every aspect of the game. It was a relief to see him stick around as a viewer, but it might not serve their long-term interests.

Loyalty as the Deciding Factor

 "I'm happy with our decision..." Would Spencer be loyal down the road?[/caption]

A key factor in choosing between Spencer and J’Tia was predicting Spencer’s loyalty down the road. Would a smart guy who’d ended up on the bottom stick with Kass and Tasha after a swap or merge? Spencer made a convincing case at Tribal Council that he was committed to their alliance. It’s interesting to note how capably he adapted to this dangerous situation. He’s only 21 yet showed an understanding of the game that we rarely see. The rookie move is to lay into J’Tia and use mudslinging to prove his value, but he used a better approach. After her swimming skills killed them in the immunity challenge, he just talked about being disappointed in their loss and didn’t blame her directly. That choice from Spencer built a case that he’s a logical player who won’t backstab them because of past betrayals.

Spencer almost single-handedly saved them in the challenge while the others were drowning. Sarah and Trish made it easier, but it was still an impressive performance. He also did well in another close loss at the reward challenge. When you combine these efforts with his social play at camp, it made the case easier for keeping him. The Tribal Council discussions were all about loyalty, and he sold the idea that Kass and Tasha could trust him. While it’s a benefit for most viewers, does keeping Spencer make sense? Let’s start with J’Tia. She may be a reliable vote, but her volatility raises questions on if she’ll toe the party line. More importantly, the Brains are also down in the numbers and will have limited control after the tribe swap. They won’t be able to keep her around as an ally if the new group loses a challenge.

Next week’s previews give away the tribe swap, so it’s fair game to discuss its ramifications. The Brains only have three players, so they’ll be in the minority in either group of seven. I expect that all three won’t end up on the same tribe but could be valuable swing votes with players from the other two. This reason is why keeping Spencer makes sense. He brings solid challenge play and smarts to the table and could help to make inroads with their new tribemates. His play thus far has been rational and straightforward, so he won’t face the target of being a strategic threat. There are huge cracks in the Brawn tribe that could play a huge role once the groups are mixed. The remaining trio could stick around for a long time.

When Throwing a Challenge Makes Little Sense

Will Sarah continue to believe Tony?

Will Sarah continue to believe Tony?

There are certain rules passed down through the generations of Survivor lore. One is very simple: you don’t throw a challenge. This choice foretells certain doom and a string of defeats in the near future. Even when the target is Russell Hantz, only bad things will happen. That’s the theory, at least. I believe there are situations where tanking a challenge makes sense. Removing a player that is creating dissention has logic to it. If a merge is almost certain in the near future, eliminating a potential threat you expect to turn on you could pay dividends. Sometimes it just helps to visit Tribal Council and learn where alliances fall before the individual game. Unfortunately, this week’s case fits none of those scenarios.

It’s been intriguing to observe the ramifications of Tony’s lies to Sarah last week. She may claim throwing the challenge is about removing a threat before the merge, but her personal motivations are driving this push. Sarah’s a smart player, but she has a blind spot about Tony because he’s a cop. Her trust in a guy who swore on his badge forgets the strategic side of the game. The fact that Tony lied originally about his professional should raise warning signs, but she’s too close to the situation. She can sell the idea of Cliff being too strong easier than Lindsey, and his apparent betrayal hits home. Sarah’s talking about “two cops at the end” and has to consider the short-term implications of removing Cliff.

Entering the tribe swap, having numbers on your side is a huge benefit. We saw it play out in the Caramoan, where a 4-3 edge allowed Bikal to remove Matt and Julia without much resistance. There’s a good chance the Brawn tribe could have an edge or be on equal footing in both groups. It’s a much different situation with one fewer member. While they’re not aware that a swap is coming, they must realize it’s a possibility. Sarah is the driving force behind the idea, and it doesn’t benefit her game. Tony’s lies were convincing enough to raise her concerns that Lindsey and Cliff are against her. Without the lies, Trish is probably the first target. It’s no surprise that she’s up for anything that puts the focus on someone else. It’s wasn’t clear what Tony thinks about it, and he sat out the challenge. I expect he’s also okay with a plan that kept the attention on others as the first targets.

Woo’s Dilemma


Woo doesn’t seem that knowledgeable about strategy.

The most interesting player in this scenario is Woo, who was the Scottie Pippen to Cliff’s Michael Jordan in the premiere. He’s a very likable guy but doesn’t seem that knowledgeable about strategy. His idea to “go with the majority” when Sarah approaches him was a wise reply. The question is whether it benefits him to turn on a stronger player. Woo’s probably number four in this group and will thrive if more imposing people remain as shields. The target probably stays away from him for a while. He also seems like a guy who loves competing and wouldn’t feel right about throwing a challenge. Those suspicions proved accurate when he joined Cliff in securing the victory. While it’s the NBA player who shoots the clinching baskets, he only got the chance because of Woo’s huge swimming effort.

Could you script a better finish that a pro basketball player using his skills to save his place in the game? The added layer of Sarah and Trish doing their best to blow it made it more intriguing. Their terrible performance seems obvious when viewed at home, so it’s possible the others caught it. Of course, they still weren’t as bad as J’Tia. It will be interesting to see how the rifts in this group impact the next few episodes. Will Sarah work with Lindsey and Cliff if they end up on the same tribe? My guess is that they’re dead to her, though it probably depends on the situation. Did Woo hurt his standing with anyone by competing? He seems like a player who could make new bonds if needed, so the blowback might not be as severe. The Brawn tribe may have a full roster going into a swap, but they’re hardly united.

A Surprisingly Dominant Group


LJ is sitting pretty with 3 allies.

Despite going to Tribal Council last week, the Beauty tribe dominated both the reward and immunity challenges this week. The strategic placement of the railings caused serious pain for LJ in the blindfold challenge, but he’s still sitting pretty with three allies behind him. It’s been impressive to watch them work together in nearly every contest. The only loss in last week’s puzzle felt like a fluke. That cohesion may carry over into the strategic side of the game. If any group seems most likely to stick together far into the game, it’s this tribe. Morgan may be on the outs of their alliance, but she’s rocked every challenge.

Speaking of Morgan, she made a game effort to throw Jeremiah under the bus after Tribal Council. It felt a bit desperate given her status at the bottom, yet it seemed to raise concerns with Alexis. There’s little downside for Morgan to put a wrench in Jeremiah’s “good guy” image. She knew the odds were stacked against her if they lost this week. The question for Morgan is whether she’ll stick with them after the swap. I expect she’ll leap at a chance to join another alliance and get revenge on Jeremiah and LJ. Her vote could be extremely valuable in switching the game against her tribemates. She also could exploit the possibility of having an idol since no one realizes LJ has it. This might create a split-vote scenario once again like the one that nearly doomed Alexis last week. Morgan’s proven she’s better at the game than I expected, though she still might face an uphill climb as a free agent. A better move could be to mend fences with the other Beauty members and hope to put grievances aside, however.

Since we’ve seen the “drop your buffs” comment from Jeff Probst in the previews, there’s little to gain by speculating on who’s in the best and worst position on each tribe. Instead, I’ve chosen three players from the overall group that meet each description. So much will depend on how the numbers shake out; this random draw could have a huge impact on the rest of the season. Here’s where it currently stands:

Who’s in the best position?

Woo – Despite not having an idol or an obvious partner, Woo isn’t on anyone’s radar. He’s developed solid relationships with everyone on the Brawn tribe, and his positive attitude should keep him from being targeted. Woo’s safe strategy is wise for this part of the game, and he should avoid the target until well after the merge. He isn’t getting lots of attention, but we’ve only seen him in a positive light. This bodes well for his long-term prospects, and he may be a dark horse pick to win the million.

Tasha – The Brains tribe struggled mightily and nearly lost every challenge, yet Tasha was never in trouble. This speaks to her strategic and social abilities behind the scenes. She didn’t use tunnel vision and stick with J’Tia; trying to keep her as a goat was a losing strategy. The concern is that she’s down in the numbers, but Tasha could be a valuable swing vote among the other groups. There’s no baggage from past betrayals either. Spencer and Kass are also in a similar position if they end up in the right situation.

LJ – His challenge success makes him an obvious target, but having three allies should keep him safe. He also has an idol that adds a safety net if the numbers turn against him. LJ will be in tougher waters after the merge, but he should easily avoid the vote for the next few weeks. The question is if he can build a larger coalition that keeps him safe when the focus shifts towards individuals that must be removed.

Who’s in trouble?


Morgan doesn’t have any allies on her tribe.

Morgan – Despite her presence as a swing vote, Morgan doesn’t have any allies on her tribe. This puts her in a much different situation than the Brains. It wouldn’t be shocking if she lasted well into the game, but the obstacles are larger for Morgan. She needs to find strong allies somewhere and avoid making any more enemies. Luck also needs to put her on the opposite tribe of Jeremiah and LJ.

Sarah – It surprises me to put Sarah within this group, but the warning signs are too great. She’s totally on board with Tony, and he’s using her to flip the target away from him. Her tunnel vision about removing Cliff and Lindsey might compromise her judgment. She has plenty of assets within the game, but Sarah needs to take a step back and think rationally. Getting away from Tony might be a good start.

Cliff – I really like the big guy, and he’s proven that he can handle the elements. Questions remain about his strategic abilities. His awkward interactions with Lindsey about the game becoming tougher weren’t very reassuring. Having a strong ally is never a bad thing, but he doesn’t seem to recognize the dangers from his tribemates. He was a few missed baskets from possibly leaving the game. Cliff could face a target no matter how the numbers shake out, and it may take some challenge wins to get him to the merge.

The three-tribe format raises the stakes to astronomical levels when the buffs are dropped next week. After four strong episodes, the stage is set for an even more intriguing middle portion. Will Tony continue his mad scientist ways in a new group? Can Sarah remove the blinders and not jeopardize her game? Will LJ stop making this game look easy? How will the mysteries of the chickens and eggs shake out? These questions just scratch the surface of the excitement to come. We may be in store for a thrilling season.

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