Winners at War: Extortion Advantage is perhaps Survivor’s worst twist ever

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved /

Another power complicating a convoluted theme, Survivor: Winners at War introduced the Extortion Advantage, giving more power to jury members.

On April 22, 2010, Survivor fans were privy to one of the most explosive Tribal Councils, closing out J.T.’s arc on Heroes vs. Villains with Parvati Shallow’s iconic double idol play on both allies Sandra Diaz-Twine and Jerri Manthey. The Heroes would never recover from the moment, and it represented the first time Russell Hantz didn’t have all the cards in his hand.

Ten years later, Survivor: Winners at War provided an equally strong showcase of the Tony Vlachos Show™, quickly finding a Hidden Immunity Idol, winning his second-straight Immunity Challenge, creating a plan for a safe vote and creating a core four alliance to take out a huge threat instead with a 4-3-2 split. In the span of an action-packed hour, he left behind his passive persona and went full-Cagayan.

Somehow, one of his lesser feats in the episode allowed him to achieve such concentrated greatness, but it should not be overlooked. Natalie and Parvati found the Extortion Advantage on the Edge of Extinction, giving them unbridled power as members of the jury in a way that can truly, irrevocably exploit a player’s destiny in Survivor.

Quite simply put, it is the one power in the show’s history that might be the most corrupt, overpowered, and counter-intuitive to what it means to outwit, outplay, and outlast.

What is the Extortion Advantage?

Simply put, the Extortion Advantage allows someone on the Edge of Extinction to extort a player still in the game for fire tokens. In this case, Natalie and Parvati extorted Tony Vlachos, forcing him to pay six fire tokens by the Immunity Challenge came around that same day or else he wouldn’t compete for immunity, and he wouldn’t have a vote at the next Tribal Council.

To my knowledge, it doesn’t appear that there are limitations to how many fire tokens players on the Edge can request. A player will receive a note in their bag and read out the fact that their vote and ability to compete for immunity is being extorted for X amount of fire tokens. They have no choice but to pay up if they want to retain their basic rights as a player for that round.

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Extortion Advantage as a nullifier

The open-ended framing of the Extortion Advantage the first of many reasons that I have issues with this twist, as an unreasonable ask such as all of the fire tokens left in the active game could effectively see a player voted out enact revenge on one of their enemies to support their allies still playing the primary Survivor game.

If you think of the members of the Edge of Extinction strictly as jury members (most of them will remain as such), their task on Day 39 is to decide who wins $2 million and the title of the Ultimate Sole Survivor. However, if the player who finds the Extortion Advantage wanted to help an ally still in the game get closer to the end, they can extort an enemy for an unreasonable number of fire tokens.

Suddenly, a 5-4 majority could be split down the middle to 4-4. A challenge beast suddenly has no ability to save themselves other than finding a Hidden Immunity Idol or some other protective advantage. Somebody sour that they were idoled out could get revenge for themselves and target someone’s game from beyond the grave.

The jury already has the duty of picking the best of three (or two) to win Survivor. Having them possibly control who makes it to the end is an exacerbation of their roles in the game at large.

Extortion Advantage as the only negative outside influence

It’s increasingly clear that the direction of Survivor is bent towards twists, following closely in the footsteps of Big Brother. I don’t have to like the shift, but I do respect that most of the time, the twists have a counterbalance. An idol nullifier can stop an idol from being played, but it also needs the information of who has one, playing into the social aspects of the game.

However, much like Jamal Shipman stumbling on the one Island of the Idols visit where he lost his vote, Tony Vlachos encountered the only time so far where getting attention from someone on the Edge of Extinction was negative.

Through Survivor: Winners at War episode 11, Natalie sold a three-round idol for a fire token, sold a Safety Without Power advantage, sold a Vote Steal, Tyson sold an Idol Nullifier, and both Parvati and Danni sold a 50/50 coin. In each scenario, a player received power at the price of feeding the fire token economy to players on the Edge of Extinction.

Who knows where fire tokens will go without the Edge of Extinction in the future. Hell, there’s even an argument (one I disagree with) that all transactions should cost the same number of fire tokens. However, all but Tony’s instance have seen the active players pay fire tokens to get an advantage.

It’s a symbiotic back-and-forth where someone trying to fight their way back into the game has to benefit someone still within, and the same can be said in the other direction. To turn it around and give 100% benefit to those on the Edge and be a 100% negative to someone still in the game is incredibly imbalanced, especially when we’ve established the opposite countless times.

In Survivor, Jeff Probst instills the idea that you work for everything. Using up social capital to acquire double the number of fire tokens you already have just to get back to break even is bad enough; to do all that to avoid being publicly labeled as someone who cannot compete for immunity nor has a vote is an incredibly imbalanced twist in favor of the person on the Edge.

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Think beyond the results

Tony Vlachos broke out in Survivor: Winners at War, reminding viewers at home the breadth of his capabilities. He managed to get three different people across both sides of the aisle to give him the fire tokens necessary to overcome his poor position. That was immaculate on its own before he managed to flip the game on its head, and after winning individual immunity.

However, just because Tony overcame the Extortion Advantage, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the twist is fair. You have to look at it in a vacuum in addition to what happened on television. Thinking in results-oriented means is a slippery slope when thinking about the balance of Survivor, especially when you apply that thinking to a logical extreme.

Parvati and Natalie didn’t know that Tony was playing double agent; the last time they saw him, he was in the driver’s seat of a 5-4 majority. If he didn’t happen to put in the work with Jeremy to make him think that he’s on his side and that Jeremy needs his vote to stay safe that round, Tony could have realistically fallen short of paying off his extortion at five of six fire tokens.

If that happens, then Tony is forced to sit out of the Immunity Challenge and has his vote removed. The only way Jeremy Collins wouldn’t be voted out that night is if Tony uses his idol on Jeremy, and even that is a losing situation for Tony in the long run. It was the right set of circumstances for Tony to even pull it off in the first place.

The Extortion Advantage has other unforeseen circumstances, even outside of Winners at War. Most seasons won’t have the Edge of Extinction or a chance to return after being voted out. For one player still in the game to extort someone else of fire tokens is immeasurably unfair and effectively neuters their chances of thriving in the game otherwise.

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Ultimately, it all worked out for Tony Vlachos, and at this point in Winners at War, it looks like not even extortion can bring him down. For Survivor at large, let’s hope the lesson learned here is that not even a terrible twist can bring down the entertainment value of a great season instead of bringing back one of the worst twists the show has produced.