Survivor gameplay: Debunking the long-standing ‘physical threats’ myth

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS ©2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS ©2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers has gone a long way in disproving a long-standing Survivor myth; physical threats are rarely end-game threats.

Since almost from the beginning, players on Survivor have used a common reason to get rid of certain players, usually before the merge. Many people have been prematurely voted off because they were perceived as a “physical threat.”

In the early days of Survivor, strong physical threats seemed to dominate the individual challenges. In season two, Colby Donaldson had success winning five Immunity Necklaces, and later, players such as Tom Weston, Terry Deitz, Mike Holloway, and Ozzy Lusth all have accomplished the feat of winning five challenges in a single season.

Even as recently as last season, someone who could be safely called a “physical threat” dominated the Individual Immunities. Brad Culpepper joined the elite group mentioned above by winning five challenges. It was just the second time since season 13 this had happened, and let’s face it; the former NFL star had little competition as far as physical threats done the stretch on Game Changers.

Survivor is always changing the game; it’s one of the prime reasons we love the show. One area in which they continue to improve is in the Individual Immunities. Now, they are often constructed to not only reward the big and strong, but also those players who have good balance, stamina, and puzzle-solving skills.

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In season 35, five men who could be considered physical threats made the merge: Joe, Cole, JP, Ben, and Devon. Only Cole has won an individual challenge, and only Ben and Devon are still alive in the game.

Over the years, tribes losing in the immunity challenges have often voted off their strongest members, sometimes very early in the game. Of course, voting out strong players is an excellent way to earn another ticket to tribal council the next time out, if things go awry.

While this is sometimes a good strategy once the merge happens, players should still want to get to the merge, and that is tough if their tribes can’t win immunity. Even after the merge, a physical player is not as dangerous as a strategic one.

Since Survivor seems to be trying to even out the playing the playing field in challenges, players should look to eliminate the most strategic and those with the best social games. Yes, both JP and Cole were big and physical, but even if either one of them had won all the challenges, it is doubtful either could have won the game. Neither had a strong social or strategic games.

Only six players who could be deemed “physical threats” and had won multiple Individual Immunities have been voted Sole Survivor – Ethan Zohn (Africa, three wins), Brian Heidrik (Thailand, three), Tom Weston (Palau, five), J.T. Thomas (Tocantins, three), Jud “Fabio” Birza (Nicaragua, four), and Mike Holloway (Worlds Apart, five).

Getting rid of strategic players with strong social games is so clearly the strategy that should be utilized earlier and more often in Survivor. There have been very few physical players whose strategic games matched their physicality, with the most notable examples being Westman and Boston Rob (though Rob was much more feared for his strategic game than his physical one).

Early in the game, the best overall strategy would be to eliminate the weakest links, especially if they seem strategically sound, and keep your tribe as strong and as intact as possible for as long as possible. The more time spent with the same people, the more likely players are to form strong bonds.

The myth that the physical threats needed to be eliminated quickly should be put aside. Physical strength seldom wins Survivor; strategy does. If you are a good strategic player, the likes of Cole and JP are not threats to you, even if they win every challenge (unless, of course, they are not in your alliance!) Even diehard “students of the game” seem to be missing this fact!

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The best strategy might be to strongly align with a big physical threat and protect them as long as you can. Get them to the merge, and if they keep winning, hopefully, they will stay loyal. Keep them in the game and make your case to the jury in the final tribal council.