With one week until the premiere of Survivor: Game Changers, I wanted to break down my thoughts on the season, returning players as a whole, and my thoughts on each member of the cast.
The name of the season has been getting a lot of negative feedback from fans due to how little actual “game changers” are in the cast. If you are being generous, maybe half of the cast could, in some way, be considered a game changer. Jeff Probst has been defining a “game changer” as anyone willing to shake up a game, even if they failed to do so, and even then, not everyone would fit that definition. In terms of returning player seasons, this probably ties with Fans Vs Favorites 2 in not really matching the cast with the theme. It would have behooved the season to swap its title and subtitle around for Survivor: Mamanuca Islands, Game Changers.
That being said, I don’t think that this cast is bad. These are all players that either production or fans have previously looked at and wanted to return. The majority of these players will be returning for their first time, and could offer a completely different game from their first time out. While it is very, very, very likely that the lesser known players will gang up on the legends, that doesn’t mean that is a bad thing. These huge-name players have had their time to shine, and it will be exciting to see what the nobodies will do to cement their Survivor legacy.
The Idea of Returning Player Seasons
Die-hard Survivor fans tend to reject the idea of returning players. They believe that the concept of Survivor hinges on 16-20 strangers from different walks of life interacting with each other for the first time within the confines of an incredibly stressful game, and that it is the ultimate social experiment. I don’t disagree with that. However, for me, that is just what new player seasons are about. The types of Survivor experiences from a season with all-new players and one with returning players are completely different. While a new player season can be seen as a social experiment, a returning player season feels more like a sporting event. You are working with known variables. You know how these players play, you know the types of people they will likely work with. There is simply more speculation and analysis that can be done with 20 people you know than 20 people you’ve never seen before, and its fun trying to figure out who actually has a shot of winning. Returning player seasons can focus more on strategy and gameplay over character development on the virtue of having already gotten to know these players. It isn’t that returning player seasons are wrong, just that they are an entirely different experience.
Before I went to write this post, I made a spreadsheet in Excel and created a small table of information. Some of it, like if a player has returned before or not, or what season they are from, is pretty objective. I also made some fairly subjective observations, like challenge ability or threat level. All of this data was entered before I divided the players by tribe, and I think the results have some interesting implications, which I will get to later.
Before I continue with the cast assessment, I need to explain the tiers that I have put players in, as this is the format for how I will be listing them. Again, this is very subjective and I am sure folks reading this could change some people around, but I think for the most part it’s a very fair assessment.
Legend: These are big name players or winners who are very deserving of the “game changer” title. These players are well known amongst both the cast mates and also the audience, and are generally considered threats to win by their very existence.
Threat: This tier is for players who have historically gone deep with a shot to win, and are generally just short of being considered “Legends”. These players are, as the tier name implies, threats to win due to their gameplay, but not because of their presence. As such, it will be easier for these players to keep targets off of their back than Legend tier players.
Competitive: A tier for players who are good enough to make plays, and are generally not different from the Threat-tier players in terms of gameplay. For whatever reason, they players aren’t remembered for their accomplishments from their original season. In my opinion, these players are in the best position to do well.
Wild Card: The Wild Card tier is for players who are unpredictable due to a lack of information. This means being overshadowed in an edit from a strategic point of view, or went out too early in their original season to make an impact, or are known to be unpredictable. These players are more likely to be targeted than the Competitive-tier players due to there being less information on them.
Unknown: A special tier for players that the other cast mates have not seen before. The effect that these players will have on the game is difficult to quantify due none of their competition knowing who they are. If an Unknown player gives any reason to be a target, it is likely they will be sent home immediately.
Hopefully these tiers make sense to you as they make sense to me. Again, players were divided before sorting by tribe, so there hasn’t been any bias to keep tribes balanced.
Here we go!
Tocantins – Winner, Heroes vs. Villains
JT has the benefit of making what some would consider to be a terrible move leading to his vote out in Heroes vs. Villains that will cause him to be underestimated. (Personally, I think it was a risky but well thought-out move, but that’s another story.) JT is the only winner on his tribe, which I actually think will put him at an advantage. He’s a minority of one, but one player can’t do anything, and he has Ozzy on the same tribe that will be much harder to beat in physical challenges. JT should slip into the background of his tribe and let other people call shots until a swap happens. JT’s poor reputation combined with his actually good gameplay and other threats on the same tribe is an excellent combo. While I don’t think any of the former winners have a good shot of winning, I think JT has the best chance of going far.
Panama, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains
Cirie is considered one of the best to never win and is a major strategic threat. She has the benefit of doing poorly in her most recent performance, similar to JT. Unfortunately, she is the weakest challenge performer on her tribe, and should Nuku have to go to tribal before a swap, Cirie is pretty screwed. However, Cirie has always been in this position and has done very well 2/3 times, so it is well within the realm of possibility for her to get to the end again. She has a very good shot amongst the Legend-tier players to do well, so long as her tribe keeps winning early on.
Cook Islands, Micronesia, South Pacific
Another one of the best to never win, Ozzy is a massive challenge beast who is unmatched in the water and still incredibly good at everything else. Ozzy will absolutely be safe pre-merge to secure challenge wins and food. Post merge, he will have the same problem that he always has, which is everyone will see him as a threat that needs to go as soon as he doesn’t win immunity. Ozzy has stated in interviews that he wants to work on his social game in order to help him move forward when he does end up losing an individual immunity challenge. The problem with this is that it could backfire, as he could be seen as both a physical AND social threat. The disparity between the number of big-name players and the number of people trying to make a name for themselves will make it difficult for Ozzy to win regardless of any changes he makes to his game. His best bet is to buddy up with JT or other big, physical threats, along with a strategist or two, and try to weed out the weak early on.
Malcolm is a weird case. People think he’s a challenge beast on par with Ozzy, but he’s relatively average given his build. He is strategic, but not the most strategic of this cast by any means. He is a relatively charming guy but he also rubs people the wrong way. If anyone shouldn’t belong in the Legend tier, it’s Malcolm. He is a threat for being a threat. If Malcolm can mitigate this and show that he actually isn’t as amazing as his reputation, he can do okay. Starting on the Mana tribe is good for Malcolm, as he has both Sandra and Tony, who are far larger threats, to take the heat off in the first couple of tribals should his tribe lose immunity. Andrea is the only contestant that he has played with before on this season, and while the opportunity exists for them to team up after a swap or merge, I don’t think it is super likely. If Andrea is smart, she’d get rid of Malcolm. Just like she did in Caramoan.
Pearl Islands – Winner, Heroes vs. Villains – Winner
Sandra is going to play the same game she always plays: “As long as it’s not me.” Will this work this season? I’m not so sure. As much as I would love for Sandra to be a three time winner, I just don’t see it happening. Sandra is at her best when she has other threats she can hide behind. Unfortunately, Sandra is arguably THE threat, second to Tony. Fortunately for Sandra, her starting tribe gives her plenty of people she can throw under the bus. Ciera is just as bad at challenges as Sandra is, and is a strategic threat, so she’s a good target. Tony is a total loose cannon, so he’s easy to deflect to. Michaela is even an option, as she’s a total unknown factor. In a perfect world, Sandra would align herself with all of the big threats, and she could give herself enough time to prop up other players as more threatening. Sadly, based on pre-game interviews, most of the big threats are targeting each other, and almost everyone is targeting Sandra.
Cagayan – Winner
Tony has zero chance of winning this game. The opinion of him is that of a loose cannon, that he is a liability to have in an alliance due to just how unpredictable and prone to backstabbing he can be. The game he played in Cagayan was amazing, but unfortunately can only be played once as it relies on no one knowing who Tony is. This time, everyone knows who Tony is and most have their sights set on him. If Tony even makes it to the merge I would be genuinely shocked. His former tribe-mate Sarah is on this season, and if they were to swap together I could see an alliance of convenience being formed, but I have a feeling Sarah would repay Tony’s vote out of her in Cagayan in a heartbeat.
Redemption Island, Caramoan
Andrea is in a great position to do well this season. Both of her original seasons were unpopular and unmemorable, so people will likely underestimate her. She is an excellent challenge performer, and the first woman to return from Redemption Island back into the game. She learned from Redemption Island that she needed to play a more aggressive game in Caramoan and showed that improvement, albeit overcorrected improvement. Given her ability to learn from her mistakes and go consistently deep, I have a feeling Andrea will play a balanced game that could get her very far. She has just enough big threats that she can use as meat shields to coast into the final 6 or 7, and has the ability to win out to the end if she needed to. Andrea has a great shot at winning.
Tai was a big character in Koah Rong, but he was not considered a strategic threat. That being said, he was a strong challenge performer and did have the fire in him to try to make moves. He even correctly identified the winner and tried to get them out, and even tried to use an extra vote advantage to make it happen. If Tai can improve his perception to the jury in a Final Tribal Council scenario, he very well could win. Tai has the benefit of having 3 other people from his original season playing this time around, so he has many options to work with. I hope he can meet up with Caleb after a swap so we can have a power couple run the game to the end. Tai has the biggest differential between perceived threat and actual threat of the Koah Rong 4, and if he can leverage that he will do great.
I would not be surprised if this season was set up for Aubry to win after losing Koah Rong. She is okay at challenges and is reasonably strategic, but people will be very alert of what she can do since her game is the last one people have seen before going out. Even with 3 former castmates in the game and a number of higher-threat targets, I don’t think Aubry will pull out a win. I just don’t think anyone will let her get to the end again, and she doesn’t have the challenge strength relative to most of the other competitors out in the game to lock in a win.
Blood vs. Water, Cambodia
SHE VOTED OUT HER MOM AND MADE BIG MOVES. In all seriousness, her only strength is her strategic prowess, which unfortunately everyone will have known about by this point. If her tribe loses early on, she’s done. It’s likely that she will scramble to the jury but I just can’t see how anyone would let get any farther. Like Tony, she’s too much of a liability to keep around. She needs to survive the early game, which seems stacked against her this time around. She is also too weak in challenges to be worth keeping around. Will not win.
Sarah is decent enough at challenges, and an average strategist. Had she not blown up her own game in Cagayan she would have gone farther. There is no target on her back other than being associated with Tony, and she can easily throw him under the bus if he is still around for that to happen. Sarah will do well on the virtue of being good enough to keep around in the pre-merge, but not well known enough to be a threat in the post-merge. If she doesn’t rub anyone the wrong way she could easily win. I hope she can add some excitement to the game if she is in it for the long haul.
Fan Favorite Sierra-Dawn Thomas
Sierra really got a bad draw in World’s Apart. She could have easily won the game if Mike had not gone on his immunity run. Sierra is a well balanced player. She is both great at challenges (She was the only one who was consistently keeping up with Mike, after all.) and she is sociable enough to go deep without immunity. Importantly, she also understands the virtue of NOT making big moves, and knowing when it is smart to stick to the status-quo. Hell, her deciding to literally barrel race in that one reward challenge from her season was actually really creative, so maybe she can apply that type of thought to gameplay. Seeing as she was a threat to win her unpopular original season, and she is surrounded with better known and more apparent threats, Sierra is set up incredibly well to go to the end with little effort, and could win if she can go on a small immunity run towards the end.
Hali didn’t really do much her season. She’s good enough at challenges and she is good at forming alliances with young people. Unfortunately for her, this cast is relatively older than her previous outing, so that could prove to be a challenge. She is one exactly no one’s radar as a threat, and as long as she doesn’t screw up a challenge too bad or end up on a super-minority in the premerge, she will do just fine.
Troyzan has the semi-unique benefit of being seen as a tool on an unpopular season. People might forget that he was only one of two people who actually was playing the game in One World, and that he was pretty good at challenges. I can easily see him acting as an older, more subtle, and strategically inclined Ozzy. I anticipate no one will take him seriously until he wins out to the end. However, his biggest obstacle to winning will be that abrasiveness he had in One World. If it comes out again, or if he doesn’t do enough work to make up for his bad impression from his first season, he will be seen as a goat in the end.
Wild Card Tier
Blood vs. Water
Brad, like Troyzan, benefits from the perception of being seen as a douche on his original season. Because Brad went premerge, no one has seen too much of him to form any strategic opinions, and most will stereotype him as a dumb jock looking to have an all-guys alliance. Brad can use this to his advantage. If he props up biggest strategic males as targets, he can avoid a few votes in the post merge. Additionally, I can see the Russell Hantz “Make Alliances With All The Girls” strategy working well for him, as people won’t expect Brad to want to ally with females, and that might make him look more loyal than he intends to be. Brad will go far, but if he can win or not will come down to how he treats people he votes out. And if Blood vs. Water was any indication, he will have many bitter jurors.
Debbie is pretty decent at everything and exceeds at nothing other than eccentricity. She is one of the weaker performers on her tribe in terms of challenges, and might be in trouble if they were to go to tribal before a swap. I doubt anyone will see her as a threat in isolation, however she does have connections with the other Koah Rong castmates, which could be useful or put a target on her back. Debbie doesn’t win, and could easily go pre-merge or post-merge. While Debbie herself isn’t unpredictable, how other will react to her is impossible to account for. If she is seen as too annoying or overbearing, she is gone, or she is taken to the end as a goat.
The dude almost died for salt and pepper. He is a good challenge performer to have around and will most likely play a loyal game to his original tribemates and also Tai. There isn’t much to say about Caleb strategically because he never went to a tribal council. People will see him as a challenge beast and nothing more. If there is more to Caleb, he can use his perception to his advantage. Come merge time, he will need meat shields around him so that he isn’t voted out immediately upon losing.
Australian Outback, Cambodia
Varner isn’t amazing at challenges, but he has been training and working out. He played way too hard in Cambodia, but he is cognizant of that and says he plans on slowing down. He has never made the jury, so no one will be targeting him early on as long as he plays nice. He has clearly learned from his past seasons which is good, and if he can grab some solid allies and stay strong to the merge he should be okay to start playing harder. For whatever reason, he seems like the type to get totally screwed by a swap after having a strong start on his original tribe, and will most likely play himself out of the game. I hope he goes far, because I want to see what he is capable of, and he is a fun presence to have on a season.
Millennials vs. Gen X
I guess Jay and David had other stuff going on so they asked Zeke back for this season. Zeke is a decent-but-not-great challenge performer, and a very open strategist. He doesn’t seem like the type to have learned that being too openly strategic too often is a bad thing on Survivor. He more than likely will play himself right out the door, and hopefully sooner rather than later. He will inherently be untrustworthy as no one will have seen his season before playing, and if he starts dragging on about the “evolution of the game” and “making big moves” early on, he will be an easy person to throw under the bus.
Millenials vs. Gen X
Michaela suffered from a major blindside in her first season due to showing just how much of a threat she is. This time, I feel as though she now knows better to show people how to count down to four with rocks, and will keep this strategizing to herself. In all seriousness, she learned the hard way that if people figure out you are a threat, you will be taken out. Unlike Zeke, I feel as though Michaela can learn from her past mistakes and lay low. This will allow her to build trust with her allies, and because no one knows who she is yet, she needs to cultivate trust to secure any chance of staying long-term. If she can do that, she might make the merge this time. If she can’t, she will probably be voted out when her impeccable challenge ability is no longer useful.
One thing worth pointing out is that the two tribes are very well balanced. There is an even split between each tier in both tribes. While there are some slight differences, they could have huge impacts on the way the game develops. Mana has two winners, while Nuku only has one. I believe this will put a bigger target on the winners on Mana, as they are a larger minority than just JT on Nuku. Secondly, Mana has two poor challenge performers in Ciera and Sandra, to Nuku’s one in Cirie. Although these differences might end up not meaning anything, I’d put money on Nuku winning over Mana, amd Ciera or Sandra being an easy, threatening first boot. Probst has confirmed that there will be a swap early on, so these points will only really have any validity up until that point.
Overall, I am excited for this season. While it is almost certain that the bigger names will go home, I am excited for the newer and less experienced players to make names for themselves and try to shake up the game. People will be trying to prove themselves as “Game Changers” which will lead to huge shifts in dynamics, and will make for an exciting season. My hopes are that the players who are massively underestimated (Troyzan, Brad, Andrea, and Sierra) will be able to see through the “Make Big Moves” mantra of the season and cruise to the end.