Survivor twists work best when balanced for fun, dynamic play

The introduction of a twist in Survivor brings a ton of competitive meta balancing difficulties. Perhaps an unintended consequence is the lack of gameplay.

One of the weirdest after-effects of the Big Movez Era™ in Survivor is the fact that knowledgeable players know to batten down the hatches when there are too many unknown powers out there. When you have so many unknown commodities, playing advantages becomes nuclear warfare, where the only winning move is not to play them unless you’re positive you’re going home.

We saw it in Ghost Island where the majority tried to keep “Naviti strong” all season long, effectively killing most of Malolo before Wendell and Domenick used the two players from that minority alliance to their advantage. It was a smart method for those two players and the tribe (in theory) because the uncertainty of Ghost Island and its numerous advantages meant having the numbers triumphed all.

We’ve seen it in the two seasons following (for a while), as before we stayed “Kama strong” in Edge of Extinction, we saw a “Goliath strong” mentality in David vs. Goliath. Alec sacrificed smart gameplay to create a more dynamic season in trying to make a cross-tribe alliance and giving Nick information about who was going home even when his Goliath tribe tried to make a move against him in the post-merge phase.

That’s when we started to see the possibility of a new twist balance things out. David vs. Goliath introduced the Idol Nullifier, reversing an idol played on an individual and making all votes for them count. Alongside a stolen vote, it allowed the Davids to vote six times against Goliath’s five remaining votes and enforce the fact Dan Rengering, the target, would go home.

It was a crazy moment in Survivor history, but it was also patently unfair. The Idol Nullifier is one of the most broken twists in the show, and the fact that the Davids were edited as rootable underdogs taking down the boastful Goliaths covered the fact that it’s unfair going both ways.

We don’t need to dive deep into the fact that it was a completely unknown twist that nobody but those in possession of it knew what could happen. Dan played an idol on himself and 99.9% of the time he would have a “Dan, does not count” epic moment. He can’t foresee something that he doesn’t know exists, so right off the bat it was something he couldn’t prepare for.

More directly, think about the optics of the Idol Nullifier twist if the shoe were on the other foot. Dan had a keen eye for finding idols that season. He could have been the lucky one to go to Exile Island and find the Idol Nullifier in the coconut, allowing him to guarantee whoever the majority deemed the biggest threat to go home.

Imagine Christian Hubicki going home soon after the merge because Mike White and the majority, knowing he would be the fan-favorite player at home, used the Idol Nullifier on Christian and even told the majority via leaks that he was the target. Instead of the shift in power, we’d see the Goliaths staying strong, and it would become a steamroll to the end.

To a lesser extent, the Edge of Extinction was a twist that encouraged passivity in order to guarantee safety. Kama’s leaders dangling the Loved Ones’ visit was partially a guarantee to stick together knowing now that if you’re going to be voted out, you have to survive on barely anything on the Edge. Logically, it would be better to stay with the numbers because of it.

That ended up being a subtle truth about an EoE-like twist in Big Brother 21, as their Camp Comeback twist we’ve previously covered also had a dire unintended consequence of keeping the big house alliance strong. People in that majority alliance who were HoH and Veto holders wanted to backdoor one of their targets at times but knew that it would be too much of a risk if they returned to the game via Camp Comeback.

Sometimes, the threat of a twist coming back to bite you is enough to force passivity, and Survivor has seen that in droves with its Advantage Era. It’s part of the reason why we’re long overdue for a back-to-basics type of season, one where social guile and strategic gameplay are allowed, and the threat of an advantage is not guaranteed to stop you.