The Ultimate New-School Survivor Player Rankings: The Top 25
Twenty Two Seasons. Three Hundred and Fifty Seven Castaways. One Survivor? After spending a year going back through the “New School” era of Survivor (Spanning from the first season after Heroes vs Villains, Nicaragua, to Winners at War), and weekly following the two most recent seasons of “New Era” Survivor, it is about that time to bookend the saga with the one exercise all superfans love: power rankings! I’ve taken the herculean task of putting together a totally definitive and completely perfect list ranking every castaway to play the game of Survivor.
We’ve reached the end of the list with my top 25 new school players in Survivor. What a journey! Many months of Survivor seasons to consume and analyze has all culminated to this final list. The title of #1 is no surprise if you know your Survivor history, but #2-#25 is up for plenty of debate.
As a reminder if you are just discovering this ranking series, you can go to my Medium page to check out previously slotted castaways and to take a look at my “primer” article, which lays out my reasoning for how I put together the list.
Also, if it isn’t obvious, spoilers abound for the past 23 seasons of the show.
The last ranking to pair with the top of the player list could only be the best seasons of the new school era. It’s a culmination of all the time spent breaking down the new school era. I’m going to (try to) be analytical with this list and give logical reasons as to why seasons are ranked highly, but there will always be a twinge of personal preference involved in stating your favorite seasons.
F TIER SEASON: They Suck, Don’t Watch
23. Survivor: Redemption Island
Island of the Idols makes a convincing case for being the worst season in Survivor history, but for me as a complete product Redemption Island’s complete snoozefest lands itself at the very bottom. The one good thing to come out of the season is Boston Rob: strategy from everyone else pendulates between predictable and confounding and the living caricature of Phillip Sheppard makes the episodes unbearable at times.
22. Survivor: Island of the Idols
There was potential with this season as there were some interesting cast members and dynamic strategies… but the Dan Spilo sexual harassment scandal puts a giant black eye on the season as a whole and makes Island of the Idols uncomfortable and borderline unwatchable. Personally, I will probably never rewatch this season.
21. Survivor: One World
Top to bottom, one of the worst casts to be on Survivor. The show doesn’t commit to its own theme and the early season antics make the season spiral downwards. Thankfully, the right person won and did it in an admirable way.
D TIER SEASON: Bad Season, But There are Reasons to Watch Again
20. Survivor: Caramoan
For a returning cast this slew of favorites are one of the weakest, and the fans tribe is one of the least impactful tribes in the history of Survivor. The end of the season is good enough, but when compared to its predecessor it is a big letdown of a season both in entertainment and in strategy.
19. Survivor: Ghost Island
A strategically dead season, where one tribe just systematically eliminates the other, but then the strong players just systematically eliminate the weaker players after that.
18. Survivor: Worlds Apart
One of the most chaotic seasons from a cast personality standpoint. The behavior of players like Dan, Will, and Rodney makes for a tragic comedy of a season, but the hero Mike Holloway wins out in the end. The messy and poor strategy doesn’t make the season very rewatchable.
17. Survivor: South Pacific
There are definitely interesting dynamics throughout the season between Coach and his tribe, and some big moments sprinkled throughout South Pacific, but the boot order is too predictable and make the season as a whole pretty boring.
C TIER SEASON: Typical Survivor. If I Had to Pick a Season to Watch, Not My First Choice
16. Survivor; Nicaragua
An OK standalone season, but it’s missing that X-Factor that pushes it into the must-watch category. There are some intriguing castaways like Jane, Fabio, Brenda, and Naonka here. The lack of returners from Nicaragua is a symptom of a season you can categorize as optional viewing, but if you do decide to watch you will probably have a good time.
15. Survivor: Edge of Extinction
The end of the season is fun, but as a whole the Edge of Extinction twist makes the season pretty messy, with new additions sans Rick Devens not really standing out over the returners.
14. Survivor: Game Changers
A returners season that doesn’t lack in the “viral” moments, but the weak cast makes Game Changers miss out on the potential that it probably had when the theme was announced.
13. Survivor 41
The first new era season brought a new flavor to Survivor with many brand new twists, but the twist did more to damage the product than help. The cast is solid with a few standouts but doesn’t do enough to elevate the season in the upper echelons of Survivor history.
B TIER SEASON: Good Seasons, Essential to the Full Show Watchthrough
12. Survivor: San Juan Del Sur
A season with a strong and fun ending, but the overall cast is pretty boring (with its superstars finding fame in later seasons) and the first half of the season is slow.
11. Survivor: Millennials v Gen X
One of the more dynamic strategic seasons in the new school era, but I feel the season lacks that “rewatchability star-power”. Characters like David, Michaela, and Zeke seemed to be stars coming out of the season but their future appearances were a bit underwhelming. None of these castaways are castaways where you need to rewatch the season because of them.
10. Survivor 43
The ending of the most recent season makes the experience worth it. Interesting cast, strong start, a big lull in the middle, and a strong ending with one of the more interesting final tribal councils in the show’s history with an incredible mid-off for a million dollars.
9. Survivor: Winners at War
It’s really pure spectacle that pushes Winners at War into my top ten. The all-winners cast of both new and old school players is incredible. In execution there were some fine moments throughout, but the safe strategy tanks the entertainment in the latter stages of the season. It was a good season, but should have been so much better.
8. Survivor: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers
Inexplicably, Heroes v Healers v Hustlers with its awful name snuck into my top ten. I find the post-merge to be really enjoyable and it made up for a boring pre-merge. And, more impactfully, I think we see some of the cleanest post-merge strategy in all the new-school era, with multiple castaways making a case to be the winner at multiple points in the season.
A TIER SEASON: Great Season, Must Watch
7. Survivor: Philippines
A lot of interesting personalities and storylines in the Philippines. Great new additions to the Survivor World like Malcolm, Denise, and Abi-Maria. Its a true start to finish where no episodes are boring to watch.
6. Survivor: Kaoh Rong
In my opinion, the last true new school season to develop true heroes and real villains. Quite an entertaining post-merge and a lot of interesting strategy to analyze from a Survivor nerd standpoint.
5. Survivor: Blood v Water
A great mix of returning castaways and new players make this cast one of the best in the new-school era. The returning group encompasses a wide range of old school and new school players, but first time players like Hayden, Caleb, Vytas, and Ciera stole the show. And for a nice little bow on top of it all, Tyson got his redemption and won the season in deserving fashion.
4. Survivor 42
While Survivor 41 felt bogged down by twists, Survivor 42 showed what a complete cast can do for a season. With the same crappy twists 41 had, 42 put together a very entertaining season with excellent strategy and memorable characters like Maryanne, Jonathan, Mike, etc. Proof that good castaways transcends the show trying to self-sabotage itself with the format.
S TIER SEASON: Amazing Season, One of the Best the Show Has to Offer
3. Survivor: David vs Goliath
And with the compliments of the Survivor 42 cast behind us, how about an even better cast? David vs Goliath was fascinating from start to finish with excellent characters and dynamic strategy from start to finish. It’s really a crime that a non-winners returner season hasn’t been put together because many players from this season are worth giving another opportunity to play.
2. Survivor: Second Chance
Probably my favorite new school season from a strategic standpoint. So many heavy hitters are playing in this season, as old faces and new stars collide. The post merge may be one of the most unpredictable strategic seasons to guess who gets voted out.
1. Survivor: Cagayan
Not a surprise. Cagayan is the complete Survivor season. It has interesting strategy, a really fun cast, raw and entertaining drama, and start to finish action.
25. Ben Dreibergen
Season — Heroes v Healers v Hustlers (Winner), Winners at War (5th)
Survivor Resume — Former marine bringing awareness to PTSD of others who served. Finding many idols to keep himself in the game.
Ben put together a shocking run as target number one to secure his victory in Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers. Ben started his first season on the Heroes tribe as a former marine who wanted to be an example for other marines who suffer from PTSD, and was in a good position with solid alliances with other tribe members, mainly Chrissy. He stayed in a comfortable position on a winning tribe up to the merge, where he chose along with Lauren to join up with a Heroes-Hustlers alliance to start voting out the former Healers, as he preferred to play with those castaways. After that game-turning vote Ben became a huge target for the minority alliance players, as he not only made enemies out of Joe and Cole from previous arguments but he was painted as the leader of this “Knight’s Roundtable” alliance that the majority became. Ben didn’t stay comfortable in the majority and joined in on a surgical blindside of J.P. led by Lauren and Devin, playing the role as the “undercover agent”, purposefully leaving himself out of the vote to flip sides in the next tribal council. It was after this move that Ben became suspicious of his own demise by blindside, and after hearing his name thrown around at the water well he went rogue, turning away from his alliance and using his hidden immunity idol to guarantee himself safety. His split was deemed unforgivable after the idol play and Ben was now the primary target for the other castaways, but Ben worked harder than ever to keep himself alive. Ben would go on to find two more hidden idols to save himself and because of the introduction of the final four firemaking twist, Ben was able to earn his spot in the Final Tribal Council despite losing the final immunity to Chrissy. While Ben’s social game was criticized by many of the jury members, his resilience and run of hidden immunity idol plays earned him a victory over Chrissy and Ryan.
Winners at War Ben wanted to play the opposite game that he played in HvHvH. While HvHvH Ben scrambled for idols and played on the outskirts, Winners at War Ben put his eggs into the “loyal to the alliance” basket. Ben found a good ally in Sarah and rode with Tony and Denise all the way to finale night. However while he played the game he aimed to play, it came with some caveats that left him in a goat-ish position. Ben’s loyalty only really applied to his allies, and he left players in the jury like Adam and Jeremy bitter over Ben’s bulldozer-ing into them strategically. And while Ben never really feared being voted out, he also did not make the social or strategic moves to put his resume in equal standing with Tony and Sarah. At the final five Ben felt satisfied with his performance in the game (and probably a teensy bit self-aware that he had zero chance of winning), so he fell onto the sword and allowed for his top ally in Sarah to send him to the jury.
It leaves Ben with a strong results based Survivor career, but one that is rougher around the edges than other successful players. The weaknesses in his game are very clear: Ben is just not a strong social player. In both of his seasons, Ben put people on the jury that did not like how they were treated and absolutely carried some bitterness into the final tribal council. It happened in HvHvH, and it would have happened again in Winners at War. It points to Ben not being a very versatile strategic player who has trouble getting back in good graces with castaways once he starts burning the bridge. But Ben also has a singular focus on the path to the “next day” which serves him greatly as a Survivor gamer. You can’t let his shortcomings discount the way he won his first season by putting together three straight immunity idols finds when he was very clearly the next target. It’s how he got his result in Season 35, and even if Season 40 left him in a dead end he still made it as far. It’s enough for him to be in my top 25 over some strong, winless players.
24. Aubry Bracco
Season — Kaoh Rong (2nd), Gamechangers (5th), Edge of Extinction (15th)
Survivor Resume — The super strategist. Key chess piece mover in Kaoh Rong but couldn’t close out the season. Fairly out of the loop in Gamechangers. Blindsided in Edge of Extinction
Few players in Survivor history have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows like Aubry has in her trilogy of seasons. She struggled with the survival aspects early in her first season at Kaoh Rong but once she got more comfortable with the elements, Aubry’s strategic game got into full swing. She was a major player in the brains tribe, aligned with Neal and Debbie to vote out other brains Liz and Peter. At the merge she lost her number one ally Neal to a medical DQ but responds aggressively by joining up with Cydney and flipping the game on its head with a blindside of the season on Neal. Paired with Cydney, Aubry would set up the blindside on Debbie then keep the pressure on the chaotic minority alliance of Jason, Julia, Scot and Tai. Aubry makes it to the final three after beating Cydney in firemaking, but she lost to Michele Fitzgerald in the final tribal council, despite being much more involved in the season’s strategy compared to Michele who floated along with a good social game. It’s one of the few seasons in Survivor history where you could make the case that “Aubry was robbed”.
She returns for Gamechangers where she doesn’t really find the pulse of the vote all season. While she wanted to make big strategic moves, she didn’t find herself aligned with the players who called the shots, especially at the end when she missed on voting out Andrea and Michaela.
Back for one more season in Edge of Extinction, Aubry never found her footing on a tribe where the new players were uninterested in aligning with the returners. While she wanted to “start a dialogue” with castaways and was antsy for the successful Kama tribe to get to the strategy, Aubry was cleanly blindsided with an idol in her pocket before the merge.
You have to give props to the strategic abilities of Aubry that she proved to have during her first season in Kaoh Rong, but her social game was never at the same level. Aubry called so many shots in her first season, but the majority of the jury (minus big Aubry proponent Neal due to a twist, I should add) chose Michele to win, a player who was sociable and well-liked but lacking in game moves. Her latter two seasons would see some of the same issues crop up where she wasn’t a player that others worked with in crunch time. This seems to point at the downsides of playing Survivor with a strategy-intensive mindset like Aubry did in her three seasons. Aubry was a gamer who struggled to hide that she was a gamer, and it left her out to dry when she was looking to build social capital and find allies to trust in.
23. Mike “The White Lotus” White
Season — David vs Goliath (2nd)
Survivor Resume — He wrote School of Rock. He wrote the Emoji Movie. Superfan with a sarcastic bite. Strong under the radar gameplay.
Mike the screenwriter came into the season as a long-time superfan of the show with a vision of how he wanted his Survivor game to go. While it got off to a bad start when he was called out for looking for a hidden immunity idol on day one, Mike found his stride once the alliances truly began to form. He was complicit in the Natalie blindside which set the stage for a possible cross-tribe alliance with Nick, but Mike ended up getting cozy in the Goliath majority, having a voice to call shots within the larger alliance. He balanced relationships with the original Goliath tribe and a side-alliance with the “Jabenni crew” of him, Angelina, and Nick to keep a strong pulse of the game in the final third. Mike dictated the Davie vote and moved his way into the final three after winning fire against Kara. Mike’s social game was applauded by members of the jury (especially Christian) but in the end the big moves Nick was involved in held a lot more weight, leaving Mike in second place.
The superfan was plenty entertaining with his witty confessionals and general comedic relief, but also put together a very strong under-the-radar performance. With only one strong season to his name it is difficult to place him any higher than this, but he was one of the best players in an incredibly competitive season which is impressive.
22. Davie Rickenbacker
Season — David vs Goliath (6th)
Survivor Resume — Positive personality. Played his idol to save Christian. key member of the Davids alliance.
Davie, the self-labeled “black nerd”, played a really strong and balanced game on David vs. Goliath, making it all the way to finale day before his time ran out. Early on Davie looked to rely on his positive personality to build relationships with the other Davids, and while he was by no means leading strategies in the pre-merge, he was seen as trustworthy and he was able to find an idol to keep himself safe. At the merge, he fell in with the Davids in the numbers minority but Davie used his idol perfectly to protect Christian in an important vote and vote out John, while also flushing out one of Dan’s idols. Davie from then on held a lot of weight in the David alliance with Nick, Christian, and Carl, but he stayed flexible to keep himself from falling behind strategically. A key example of this was when he protected Christian a second time against Gabby’s blindside by leaking the plan to keep an ally safe. On top of that, Davie kept up with the speed of the game as an aggressive idol searcher, finding two idols in total during the season, and assisting Nick with other advantage searches.
Overall, there are simply no gaping holes to poke in Davie’s season performance: he worked hard both strategically and socially, his key alliance simply did not outlast other groups to keep him safe in the very end. Add onto to that his likability, and he had in my opinion the best odds at winning David vs Goliath if he made it to the end. Given how competitive that season is, it reflects in his high ranking.
21. Dom Abbate
Season — Ghost Island (2nd)
Survivor Resume — Cocky mastermind of the Naviti alliance. Constantly looking to make a strategic move. Friendship with Wendell.
Dom from minute one in Ghost Island established exactly the type of player he was going to be: the ever-evolving strategist who will play his cards out in the open. There was nothing quiet about Dom’s game: he had an open alliance/bromance with Wendell, he had an open rivalry with arrogant bad boy Chris Noble, and he openly strategized with both fake and real idols in play. What kept Dom in the game was that he was able to utilize power in easy numbers: the Naviti alliance stuck together right up to the very end because it was the safe and easy path, and Dom was a leader in pushing that narrative to protect his loud playstyle. Once Naviti had to eat each other, Dom had strong allies in Wendell and Laurel and a loyal foot soldier Angela to socially protect himself, and idols/immunities to physically protect himself. Dom sat in the end with an equal resume with Wendell, where his strengths and flaws were finally put on blast.
Dom was an active strategist who was the key catalyst in so many votes this season, but he was a bit too pushy and gamey for his tribemates. In the end his strategic strength could not win outright over the social strength of Wendell. His achievements in the first 38 days are more impressive than Wendell’s which is why he is ranked higher than his brother-in-arms. But his flaws keep him out of the top twenty.
20. Nick Wilson
Season — David vs Goliath (Winner), Winners at War (7th)
Survivor Resume — Lawyer who grew up in a trailer park. Naming his alliances. Key member of Davids alliance.
The lawyer from the trailer park found his stride and strength in Survivor: David vs. Goliath to come away a million dollars richer. Nick went into the season looking to be the emotionless strategic player by building many alliances, but he also starts to connect with people as well, especially when faced with opening up about his past when his tribe talks about personal struggles. He survives the first vote due to a medical DQ, and he uses that momentum to build alliances with Christian, Elizabeth, Davie, and Carl among others. At the merge is where Nick made his game winning moves: he played a big part in blindsiding John and in nullifying Dan’s idol in back to back tribal councils as a key member of the David alliance. While Nick wasn’t as big of a player in the late game when his allies Carl and Davie were blindsided without his knowledge, the impact he made in the midgame combined with a general respect the jury had for him secured him a 7 to 3 victory over Mike and Angelina.
Nick returned to play in Winners at War and fell into a pretty solid place strategically, but his season would be defined by missing the timing. Nick made the merge by sticking in both new school and “less connected players” alliances, then transitioned into a safe but powerless spot in the bottom half of the Tony Sarah Ben Sophie alliance. Nick went with Tony on a big move to blindside Sophie, but then later held fire on a possible blindside of Ben to vote out Jeremy instead. That move left him at a dead end when Michele won the next immunity and Nick was voted out as the fifth member of a four person alliance. While Nick navigated the first two-thirds of the social game pretty well, he ended up being more of a floater player in a season where tight alliances were king. Maybe Nick felt that was the way to go after his own alliance members kept getting blindsided in David vs Goliath.
Overall, Nick spent his Survivor career going far in incredibly competitive seasons, winning DvG with a strong combination of social likability, alliance making, and big moves. It didn’t quite translate to Winners at War to be a power player, but his floating skills left him with a chance of winning if he didn’t miss his big opportunities. He’s not a top tier winner but well deserving of a top twenty spot.
19. Tasha Fox
Season — Cagayan (6th), Second Chance (T-2nd)
Survivor Resume — Protested Garrett’s strategic shutdown the evening J’Tia dumped the rice. Winning immunities as the underdog in Cagayan. Passionate “hero” player.
Tasha went through the ringer in Cagayan but came out of it as the lovable underdog. She survived the dysfunctional Brains tribe and made it to the merge, but found herself in the minority after the merge due to Kass flipping on their tribal alliance. She ended up fighting back valiantly against the majority along with Spencer, winning multiple immunities and piggybacking on Tony’s blindsides whenever she could.
In Second Chance, Tasha relied more on her political game, bouncing around a bit between alliances throughout the game but outlasting other targets, especially when Kass chose to get chaotic with her and forcefully paint her as a threat. Tasha ended up settling into a final three alliance with Jeremy and Spencer that succeeded in sitting together at the end together, but Jeremy’s resume was too big to overcome and Tasha did not receive any winning votes.
It was tough to get a read on how good Tasha was as a player from her first season because she was constantly battling against the odds, especially after the merge where she was forced into a situation where it was win immunity or hope the majority doesn’t make tonight the night you go home. What you could tell is that she was a fighter when she played. Second Chance was when we got to see the political side of Tasha’s Survivor gameplay, where she was often involved with majority alliances which allowed her to have a say in votes. But, Tasha was never really able to get her own blindside off the ground. The one big weakness in her Second Chance game was that she left the strong players remaining in the game in Jeremy and Spencer on the table while choosing to target people like Abi-Maria and Keith instead. She’s an honorable player, which makes her great to root for but lacking when the cutthroat is needed. It’s very hard to be a perfect player and Tasha was not one, but she’s one of the best imperfect players we’ve seen play in the new school era.
18. Rick Devens
Season — Edge of Extinction (4th)
Survivor Resume — Newscaster. Returned from EoE to the game at the merge. Underdog story by winning immunities and finding idols. Fake idoled two people in the same tribal council.
Rick Devens found himself at the center of all the drama and gameplay in Survivor: Edge of Extinction, building himself a winning game but coming just short of making the final tribal council. The newscaster Rick worked himself into the tribe majority early with his sociable personality, and made a strong alliance with returner David Wright. However the tribe he found himself on was completely dismal at challenges, and Rick was voted out early in the season before the merge and sent to Edge of Extinction. But Edge of Extinction was kind to Rick, and pulled out a narrow victory in the EOE return challenge to hop back into the game at the merge. When he returned to the game Rick was adamant about joining up with the Kama majority to vote out the castaways who sent him home, but an unexpected blindside of Eric put Rick right back into the outcast role, especially after David was voted out. Rick would then put together a combination of immunity challenge wins and hidden immunity idol plays that kept him alive in the game despite being everyone’s number one target to vote out. Once Chris Underwood returned to the main game from the second EOE return challenge, Rick finally had an ally and could take control of the game as the former underdog, now heavy favorite to win. He survived the final six vote with challenge immunity, then would find a hidden immunity (and make two fake ones that his rivals played) to get to the final four. All Rick had to do was win the last firemaking challenge to win a million dollars, but Chris chose to duel Rick instead of leaving it for someone else, and Rick lost out.
It was an incredibly chaotic game for Rick but it was one that would have clearly won a million dollars. His great success as the underdog and ultimate gamer, combined with his excellent jury management as he would perform like a master debater in every tribal council. He had the jury eating out of his palm and without another flashy player in the game he would have won against anyone in the season. While he admittedly put himself in the underdog position with some poor social and strategic plays and was only alive in the game because of a second chance twist, possessing four hidden idols in one season (three that he found) and winning four individual immunities when he needed to is nothing short of amazing.
17. Omar Zaheer
Season — Survivor 42 (6th)
Survivor Resume — Devout muslim. A chess piece mover type social player. Ostrich acid wash t-shirt.
For 80% of Survivor 42, Omar was the best player on the beach with a strong social and strategic game. Omar entered the season as the positive and kind veterinarian, which worked wonderfully as a facade to hide how cutthroat he would approach the game. Omar found two good allies early on on Taku in Jonathan and Lindsay, and took that alliance into the merge. Omar made more allies at the merge and began to become a central hub for strategic connections. His strong social game and front-facing personality hid how cutthroat Omar was playing in the middle of the game, as he had zero qualms with making up bold-faced lies to move forward his agenda. His two big moves involved a planted lie to Mike to push a Hai blindside into existence, and the next tribal council Omar took advantage of knowing Drea’s “knowledge is power” advantage to send her to the jury. Omar was riding especially high after the Drea blindside and believed him and Lindsay were running the show, which led him to underestimate the strategic skills of Jonathan, Maryanne, and Mike and his hubris steamrolled him at the very end.
It’s a classic first season mistake for a player who was exceptional for much of the season as his success blinded him to the fact that conversations go on without his knowledge. I don’t think it is recency bias to say that this season is one of the best non-winning performances of the new-school era. A second season for Omar could make for quite the performance, as Omar can learn from his mistakes and adapt to turn his second chance into a million dollar success.
16. Mike Holloway
Season — Worlds Apart (Winner)
Survivor Resume — Having to fight against his former alliance to reach the end. Winning five out of the last six immunities.
Few players have had to fight for their spot in the game against all odds as much as Mike Holloway had to in Worlds Apart, but even fewer end up overcoming those odds for the final victory in the end. When we meet Mike at the beginning of the season he is the good ol’, straight and narrow, simple, hard-working oil driller who loves the game and wants his tribe to work hard. He is a part of an early blue collar alliance with his number one in Kelly and the duo of Rodney and Dan to stay safe early on. He was more or less the leader of this alliance but not the most liked, especially with Rodney who not only didn’t like his goody two shoes Christian personality but also took it personal when Mike led a blindside on his bro Joaquin. Despite cracks, the Blue Collar players joined forces with other castaways from No and White (Carolyn, Tyler, Will) at the merge to vote out Joe and his allies, but everything changed at the Survivor Auction. Mike overheard talk from Rodney, Will, Carolyn, and Tyler that they wanted to blindside him sooner rather than later. So at the Survivor Auction, Mike attempts to back out of a deal where everyone has to pay cash for their letters from home because he wanted to guarantee that he could win a bid for an advantage. Crap hits the fan in the aftermath of the auction at camp, and Mike officially breaks from the majority alliance with no chance to get back in. However Mike is able to survive by winning five of the last six immunity challenges, and the one he did not win he was able to use an idol to keep himself safe at tribal council. His winning streak was rewarded over Carolyn’s political game as he was given the title of sole Survivor.
While Mike had alienated himself from the numbers, he also became alienated from the more villainous personalities of the season in Dan Will and Rodney, which allowed him to live on the outskirts and be friendly with players like Jenn, Shirin (who he backed up in the infamous Will vs. Shirin fight), Carolyn, and Sierra, which helped him gain brownie points with the jury members. He also was forced into the “All or Nothing” strategy at the perfect time because he was by far the best player at challenges in the final third of the game. It also helped that he was by far the most athletic and coordinated person remaining in the Worlds Apart endgame, making him the favorite in every immunity challenge. So while the political game didn’t go the way Mike wanted it to, his genuine personality paired with his drive to outcompete the competition pushed him to overcome crazy odds and secure the million.
15. Michele Fitzgerald
Season — Kaoh Rong (Winner), Winners at War (3rd)
Survivor Resume — Likable personality. Somewhat controversial winner performance. Kicked it with Wendell. Outcast season in WaW. Never voted out.
Michele put together one of the most unexpected victories in new school Survivor when she won Kaoh Rong without really making a strategic move. Michele used her social game on early tribes to find alliance members and make connections with people and makes the merge without having to go to tribal council. Once at the merge Michele fell in line with an alliance that Aubry and Cydney fused together to vote out the rogue castaways Jason, Scot, and Julia. Once in the late game Michele and Cydney started to protect each other more, which paid off for Michele when Tai and Aubry wanted to vote her out in the final seven. Michele floated her way to the final three while Aubry and Cydney went after each other, and then Michele won a unique twist where she could remove someone from the jury. Michele removed Aubry’s most influential supporter in Neal and emphasized her social game in the Final Tribal Council. The jury awarded Michele the victory with a 5–2 vote, but her reputation as a winner felt minimized. While Michele won within the rules of Survivor by jury vote, Aubry had been the strongest strategic player of the season while Michele could not take ownership of a strategic move of her own. It made Kaoh Rong feel like Aubry lost the season with a bitter jury, rather than Michele winning it on merits other than general likability.
Michele held onto that weight and self-doubt of her Survivor ability and was ready to shake it off when she returned for Winners at War. Unfortunately for Michele it felt like her second season was going the same way, maybe worse, in the first half of the season. After a tribe swap Michele found herself in the minority with Parvati and stuck on an island with former fling Wendell. She survives to the merge because of a Yul blindside, where she gets into an alliance with Kim, Jeremy, Denise and Tyson. That alliance falls apart after Jeremy uses his “safety without power” to leave a key vote and Tyson goes home, leaving Michele on the outskirts strategically. This time around, Michele is able to fight back and outlast when it would have been easy to resign yourself to going home. She’s able to slide her way into the final six where she wins two key immunity challenges that save her life in the game, then pairs up with Natalie to outlast the majority alliance remaining. But when sitting next to Tony and Natalie in the end she was unable to make a case to people to award her two million dollars over the other two.
It leaves Michele with a very unique Survivor legacy. Michele is one of the only players who has played multiple times to never be voted out, and that has to be attributed to her social game. Her social ability allowed her to get into alliances, downplay her presence as a threat to win, and win over jury members (and Extinctioners in WaW that gave her plenty of tokens). That social acumen has just never translated into garnering the pieces to make flashier strategic moves that New School Survivor is defined by. It’s a bit reminiscent of a good girl version of old-school Sandra’s winning seasons: Michele and Sandra both moved forward in their seasons by lower profile strategic games and by simply avoiding the vote as much as possible. But Michele didn’t have the right people sitting next to her in the end like Sandra did. What she did get at least was an acknowledgement of her abilities in her second season of Survivor, and the validation from many fans that her winning season was not just a fluke.
14. Maryanne Oketch
Season — Survivor 42 (Winner)
Survivor Resume — Super bubbly personality. Excellent blindside of Omar.
Maryanne entered season fourty-two with unbridled excitement on her face and bubbly enthusiasm in all of her movements, and little did people expect that Maryanne would be the one taking the million dollars in emphatic fashion on an incredibly competitive season. Early on Maryanne made quite an impression with her crackhead enthusiasm, which kept her in the main circle of her Taku alliance but lacking a ride-or-die ally to move further in the game. She had a hidden immunity idol and an extra vote so she was accepted into the majority alliance for her twist tools but was quietly kept at arms length by her allies Omar, Jonathan, and Lindsay. Because Taku was so strong in challenges Maryanne made the merge without having to test her bonds, and then fell into more of a floater role strategically: involved in conversations but nowhere near the steering wheel of the post-merge strategy, at first. But once it got to crunch time, Maryanne knew she had to turn up her game and make a case to win. She had to use her idol in a tense tribal council with Drea but quickly replaced it with another immunity idol she found and kept secret. Later she would use her extra vote to make the blindside of front-runner Omar happen when Mike and Jonathan were having second thoughts about it. And her social game started to carry her at the end when players like Lindsay and Jonathan became the focus of the vote, letting Maryanne walk into the final tribal council after Romeo picked her in the final four. Once at final tribal council Maryanne excellently explained her game and persuaded the jury that she was deserving of the million dollars over Mike with an 8–1–0 victory.
Very rarely does the bubbly personality pull off an under the radar, final third resurgence victory like Maryanne had, and she established herself as an excellent face for the future of Survivor in the next era of the show.
13. Spencer Bledsoe
Season — Cagayan (4th), Second Chance (T-2nd)
Survivor Resume — Cocky young brain tribe member. Bitter rivalry with Kass. Found an idol while Woo was chasing him and Kass was standing there. Underdog of Cagayan. Trying to be more relational in Second Chance. Blackmailing the vote in the Final Four.
Spencer became a star player from his time on Cagayan as the cocky young underdog with nothing but the strategy of the game on his mind. While he started on the disastrous Brain tribe, a tribe swap bought him, Tasha, and Kass breathing room to get to the merge. After a big merge vote where Kass flipped sides (beginning their bitter rivalry), Spencer had to fight hard to stay around. He found an idol that everyone was searching for because Woo had exposed the clue Spencer got. He found his openings with Tony to piggyback on blindsides to delay his execution. He won key immunities at the end to reach the final four against all odds. It’s tough to gauge how much of a chance he had to win against Tony, but against Woo or Kass his story would have probably won him the million dollars.
In his second season, Spencer worked to tone down the over-analytical “game-bot” in him and build relationships with people, especially after his early alliance with Shirin was completely shut down. The biggest relationship he built was with Jeremy, as this connection built the foundations for a final three alliance with Tasha that sat in the final tribal council together. This relational focus didn’t come at the cost of the strategic gameplay, highlighted by leading the blindside against Stephen Fishbach. Jeremy would end up winning unanimously, as Jeremy’s game was too complete compared to Spencer, and Spencer was hurt by his performance in the previous tribal council when he used intimidation tactics to urge for Kelley Wentworth’s elimination and left a bad taste in the jury’s mouths.
Spencer was a worthy character in his two season arc because he came to play every day on the island. His first season he self-admitted to being a “game-bot”, but it didn’t mean he didn’t have successes. He played the hand that he was dealt the best he could. That first season however you could tell his weaknesses stemmed from his youth and immaturity. He played like a superfan and dove into the strategy while ignoring the social and relational aspects of the politics of Survivor. He worked to improve that in Second Chance to success as it opened a lot more doors for him to operate in. At the end of the day, he’s always going to be reliant on the strategic mind he possessed for the game over the social game, and his fatal flaw was in full view when he was essentially blackmailing his allies by telling them to vote out Wentworth in that final four in Second Chance or deal with an intense campaign against them for Spencer in the jury. He’s not a full package player, but that’s ok: it’s what makes castaways more interesting.
12. Adam Klein
Season — Millennials v Gen X (Winner), Winners at War (12th)
Survivor Resume — Coming to terms with his Mother’s illness on screen. Attempting to pull an idol off the tribal council stand to save himself.
Adam went through the wringer both emotionally and strategically in his winning season of Survivor on Millennials vs. Gen X. Early on Adam found himself in the minority after the “misfit” alliance lost out in the first millennial tribal council, but a tribe swap allowed for Adam to choose his path in the game as a swing vote between two alliances: Ken and Jessica vs Figgy and Taylor. Adam chose the Gen Xers, and had to simultaneously do damage control with the millennials he wanted to work with while defending from attacks by the millennials who now found themselves on the outs, like Taylor and Jay. Adam was able to weather the attacks and slink out of the strategic spotlight when the big game Gen Xers like Chris and David started going to war with each other as the game officially moved from tribal lines to individual. Adam stuck around as a strategic factor in each of the votes and while his plan wasn’t always the one that ended up happening, he was able to make it to the end relatively unscathed. He was also dealing with the impact and pain of his mother’s battle with lung cancer, as throughout the season he deals with the fact that the person he loves probably won’t be in his life for much longer. It leads to a powerful moment on his loved one visit, and a wonderful conversation with Jay where they are able to share the burden of that pain. Adam won unanimously at the final tribal council and got the invite to return for Winners at War.
Adam came into Winners at War playing incredibly aggressive as a leading voice to vote out old school players, but quietly trying to pick them up as allies. This maneuver was permanently damaging to his game after Boston Rob blew up his two-faced strategy, which left him in a precarious position for the rest of the season. Adam was able to avoid the vote until after the merge, when the dominant alliance got everyone on board to send Adam home because of his strategic shadiness. And no, the voting urn podium could not save him from his fate.
Adam leaves his two seasons of Survivor with a gamer reputation. He was the type of player always looking for the angle to make a move to varying levels of success. Obviously he was more successful in MvGX when he could duck in and out of the power players of the season who were looking to make big moves, as he never emerged as a clear frontrunner because of shields like Zeke and David. But once you reach the end of the season, you can’t deny that he had influence on the votes in the season to various degrees especially when compared with Ken and Hannah on the FTC stand. When Winners at War shaped out to be a more alliance based and less duplicitous game, Adam couldn’t keep his plans under wraps in the same way, and his gaminess became his downfall. Adam thrives best when the game is moving fast, because he has the strategic chops to play the high stakes game, but the presence that keeps him under the radar and an excellent shield user.
11. Kelley Wentworth
Season — San Juan del Sur (14th), Second Chance (4th), Edge of Extinction (10th)
Survivor Resume — Retrieving the idol during the first challenge in Second Chance. Idoling out Savage. Incredibly popular new-school female strategist
I didn’t watch San Juan Del Sur or Second Chance when it aired. I was in college studying chemical engineering so my nights were quite busy. So during my rewatch I was a bit surprised to see Kelley Wentworth get an invite back after a first season where she really did nothing of note. She and her dad were voted out before the merge by other loved one pairs after a tribe swap. She didn’t seem like a bad player on her first season but there was little tape to go off of. She made the most of her second chance fittingly in Second Chance, where she embraced the underdog role and schemed her way to a fantastic fourth place finish. She was well-liked by everyone but entered the merge in the minority, aligning with Kass and Ciera. Her one weapon at the merge was a hidden idol that she had to retrieve during the opening challenge (the first of its type), and she used it to perfection. In her highlight move of the season, she successfully played her idol when she would have gone home,and sent a power player at the time in Andrew Savage out of the game in shock. It shook up the game completely and from then on, Wentworth lived on the outskirts as someone who was involved in the strategic politics but never at the top of the food chain, but hanging around against all odds. Her post merge alliance was villainized (you can thank Abi Maria for that) but she outlasted it, and she found a second idol that she was able to use to save herself again in the final six. Her run ends in the final four as Spencer, Tasha, and Jeremy had a final three pact together which left her odd woman out. And to be honest, Wentworth was way too dangerous to be kept any longer anyway with such a complete resume.
Wentworth finished her trilogy as a returning player on Edge of Extinction, where she was able to find a couple close allies in Lauren and Wardog early on in her tribe and survive the heat of being a big name while her tribes lost many challenges in a row. She looked to be building momentum with an idol in her possession at the merge while the Kama majority began to fall apart, but she got the tables turned on her by Wardog and was blindsided before her endgame could materialize.
While Wentworth was never able to put together the complete 39-day game, her ability to play from the bottom got to shine in her Survivor trilogy. Her run in Second Chance is in the discussion for best non-winning seasons in Survivor history and it earned her the respect and the clout she needed to elevate her above many returning players as a fan-favorite of the era. Strategically all the pieces were there and she had the Survivor “sixth sense” to make successful idol plays. Her social game had always been seen personally as a weakness (as she expressed when entering Edge of Extinction), but she was able to overcome a lot of heat against hostile new players in her third season to make the merge. In a way she’s always been a bit of an “outcast queen”, where the weight of her abilities have always singled her out in the game. She always played at her best as a strategic leader with two or three strong allies, with everyone else being temporary chess pieces for her game.
10. Malcolm Freberg
Season — Philippines (4th), Caramoan (9th), Gamechangers (17th)
Survivor Resume — Defined “Survivor cool” in Philippines. Shaky hands lost him a season. Three amigos alliance in Caramoan, with a double hidden immunity idol play. Victim of the infamous two tribe tribal council.
If you were to make the ideal Survivor contestant in a lab, I think you end up with Philippines Malcolm. He’s smart. He’s attractive. He can do the survival stuff. He was teaching English overseas so he has a heart of gold. He’s witty. Unfortunately for him, he started his first season on one of the worst tribes in Survivor history that went to tribal council four straight times. However, the bad luck ended up being a blessing in disguise: he established an alliance with another strong player in Denise, and as the last two castaways on the tribe, they were split up and Malcolm put onto a new tribe that immediately saw him as a swing vote. He’s able to survive to the merge while making new allies, and then reconnect with Denise and decide on the best strategy going forward. The end result was an alliance with Denise, Skupin, and Lisa that got him to the final four. We then learn Malcolm’s one weakness: shaky hands. In a challenge that required balancing a marble using wooden blocks, Malcolm was the first to lose, even with an advantage that gave him a second chance to play. If he wins that challenge he most certainly votes out Denise with Lisa and Skupin, and then goes on to win the season using the same reasoning that Denise would end up using to secure the million dollars. It’s one of the best non-winner performances in Survivor history.
Of course Malcolm gets the invite back to Fans vs. Favorites, where he is settled but not satisfied with his place in the Favorite’s “Spies-R-Us” alliance that is ceremonially led by Phillip Sheppard. He and Corinne sneakily recruit the fans to build a counter alliance and blindside the favorites, but Dawn leaks the plans and Corinne is voted out right at the merge, leaving Malcolm in the clear minority. Malcolm fights hard with Reynold and Eddie and due to some fortunate circumstances, is able to keep his 3-man alliance completely safe in a tribal council with Reynold having won immunity and Malcolm using not one, but two idols in a bold play to fracture the majority alliance. Phillip goes home from it, but the sheer performance of the idol reveal digs Malcolm into a hole that no one wants to help him get out of, and he is sent home since he couldn’t find an idol to secure more safety. In Game Changers, Malcolm is sent home early on bad luck, being the unfortunate victim of the infamous two-tribe tribal council.
Malcolm definitely deserves to be in the conversation as one of the best to never win. He’s in my opinion the best non-winning castaway to play in the last 23 seasons. Philippines was his season to lose but got dealt the worst possible final immunity, and his aura as a “complete package” player makes the mountain for him to climb in returner seasons that much higher than players that don’t stand out physically. He played a smart yet entertaining style of game: he didn’t have to use both his idols at once in Caramoan but he did it very much to be the first to pull off that type of play. I can appreciate a castaway who doesn’t always go with the chalk move, and does fun things strategically knowing that he or she is on a TV show.
9. “Boston” Rob Mariano
Season — Redemption Island (Winner), Island of the Idols (Advisor), Winners at War (16th)
Survivor Resume — Mt. Rushmore legend of the show, managing a cult-like alliance on RI, got to hang out on Island of the Idols for a season with Sandra. Mob boss strategy iced him out in Winners at War.
One of the Mt. Rushmore players of Survivor’s history, Boston Rob came back to the show alongside Russell Hantz to lead warring tribes for a season. While Russell’s tribe worked to get him out of the game, Boston Rob’s tribe embraced his aura and leadership, and Rob was able to construct a majority alliance that kept him safe for essentially the whole game. It was such a tight and dominant alliance that it was confounding to the spectator: why would these castaway take everything Boston Rob said as law? Boston Rob makes the merge with this tribe, shuts down any attempt for Zapatera to blindside him with Matt, and systematically votes the minority alliance out. Once his alliance is all that’s left, Rob uses the chess pieces he had prepared weeks in advance to keep him protected even further. Boston Rob had found two loyal soldiers in Phillip Sheppard and Natalie, who proved that when the pressure is on them to make a move, that they would stay with Boston Rob through thick and thin. Rob takes these two goats to the end and wins the season easily. It was a tough season for Survivor players to chew on: the level of play from new contestants were so lacking that it felt like Rob was given the season as a legacy win. Regardless of difficulty, the way Boston Rob won this season has to be commended for the pure dominance it took for the wire-to-wire victory he achieved.
After a quick cameo on Island of the Idols next to a giant statue of his face, Boston Rob returned to play for real on Winners at War with his wife Amber. Boston Rob immediately played aggressive as old school players were actively targeted early on. When he and his unexpected ally Parvati were pressured by the vote, Rob worked to throw tribal council into chaos with idol talk and threw Adam under the bus by revealing that Adam was trying to pick him up as a number after the upcoming vote. Rob hoped a tribe swap would change the flow of the game, but despite having more of his original tribe members and stalling out the strategic conversations before the vote, Rob was unanimously sent to Edge of Extinction as new school players were keen on voting out an old school legend.
These two seasons leave Boston Rob super tough to rank in the new school era. He won Redemption Island in dominant fashion, but with one of the weakest casts from a skill level. Then he is eliminated early in a very strong cast, but there was an anti-old school agenda in that season so it would have taken a herculean effort for Boston Rob to even make the merge. Where does this leave a player with a lasting reputation and legacy?. The one thing you have to admit is that Boston Rob kept his general playstyle (as a “mafia don” style shot caller) but evolved it to be more dynamic in its execution. Boston Rob had to rely on big plays in Winners at War because it was simply impossible for the man with the Red Sox hat to duck his head and law low, and of course other big players aren’t going to be so willing to fall in line behind a big personality.
8. Denise Stapley
Season — Philippines (Winner), Winners at War (6th)
Survivor Resume — Tight alliance with Malcolm. Went to every tribal council in the Philippines. Blindsiding Sandra with her own idol. Consistent ally for others.
Denise the sex therapist survived one of the worst performing tribes in Survivor to become a million dollars richer on Survivor: Philippines. While her original tribe floundered under the “leadership” of returning player Russell Swann, Denise showed off good game sense by aligning with Malcolm early on, which allowed them to outlast their tribemates and choose who would be voted out when. When her and Malcolm were split up, she impressed her new tribe with her strength and competence which turned a situation where she could have easily been picked to go home first into more of a swing position. She ended up aligning with Jonathan Penner, Carter, and Jeff Kent, benefitting from Dana quitting due to illness, allowing the guys to win out the gender alliance war in their tribe. As the merge hit she stayed under the radar with the target on Abi-Maria’s Tandang crew, until uniting with Malcolm to create an alliance with Lisa and Skupin. Because of how immense of a threat Malcolm had become, she slid into the final tribal council with Lisa and Skupin, and defeated them on Day 39 as many people respected her level-headed gameplay and ability to adapt after starting on such a dysfunctional tribe. While there was no “big move” associated with Denise’s Philippines game, she had the social sense that allowed her to build trust with people and make alliances despite coming off as “a bit of a bitch” to some. Her rivalry with Abi-Maria in the back half of the season was her key contribution to the editing of the season, as her intellectual nature inherently clashed with Abi’s delusional opinions of herself. Overall, it was a solid win for a player who played exactly how she needed to within a more alliance-based season, garnering respect from the eventual jury members.
Denise came back for Winners at War with a bit of a chip on her shoulder and a desire to be more active in her second playthrough. She did just that when she pulled off the flashiest move of the season, blindsiding Sandra in tribal council where she played two idols: one of her own and one that Sandra herself gave to Denise to save her. Beyond the big play Denise played similarly to Philippines minus the consistent tribal councils, building trust with players like Ben and fit snugly into the majority alliance to keep herself safe for a majority of the season, though it became clearer by the end that she was in over her head a bit strategically, feeling overwhelmed by the flurry of live tribal councils and tense votes. She didn’t attack the game with the same strategic intensity of players like Tony, but was well-liked by most of the castaways. Denise makes it to finale day but she was number four in a three person alliance, and was voted out on a revote after a big idol flush in the final six.
Denise never carried a big strategic presence on her seasons but that was never her game. Denise relied on her rock-solid social game to build trust with players that would constantly keep her safe. In the Philippines she connected with Malcolm, then with the boys in the Kalabaw tribe, then with Skupin and Lisa to navigate her way to the end of the game. In Winners at War she connected with Adam, then with Kim, then with the trio of Ben, Tony, and Sarah to go far. The only weakness to point at in her game is that she never “led” an alliance in her seasons, but that just isn’t Denise’s game. Denise’s consistency and level-headedness made her an excellent ally for players, and greatly benefitted her ability to outlast others.
7. Natalie Anderson
Season — San Juan del Sur (Winner), Winners at War (2nd)
Survivor Resume — Giving John Roeker a piece of her mind. Locking down the endgame of San Juan del Sur with precision. Edge of Extinction dominance
Entering San Juan del Sur with her sister didn’t go as Natalie planned after the first tribal council, when she learned that Nadiya was the first person to be voted out. However, Natalie’s ultra-competitive instinct allowed her to thrive and find a way to win the season. Her tribe found early success in the season which allowed for players to get comfortable when building alliances, and for Natalie she connected with Missy and Jeremy on the Hunahpu tribe. The comfort of numbers lasted into the merge, but was ripped away from her when her number one ally in Jeremy was blindsided by Missy and Jon. She was infuriated by the move and wanted to get revenge on Jon, but she was smart enough to be calculated. She built an alliance with Baylor and found a hidden idol, and strategically she stayed on the down low while people were more interested in voting out Reed. When the season got to winning time she turned up the heat and took control of the game. She intentionally messed up a tribal council vote to save Keith and vote out non-threat Alec, and used that as currency to finally blindside Jon at the final six. She then saves Jaclyn with her idol in the final five to get Baylor out, and slides into the final three as Jaclyn decided that Keith’s unique personality was too dangerous to mess with in FTC. Natalie was able to point to her big, game-influencing moves as a reason for the jury to vote her winner, and the jury agreed with her. The in-game aggressiveness of Natalie was a highlight, in both the big-game moves she made and the big verbal arguments she got in with both John Rocker at a challenge and Jaclyn after she blindsided her fiance.
Natalie returns for Winners at War and ends up playing the oddest 2nd place game in the show’s history. Natalie was the first boot of the season due to a pre-existing duo alliance with Jeremy, but Edge of Extinction was in play. Natalie thrived in EoE, winning many of the island’s minigames and dominating the physical aspect of the ordeal. Natalie garnered immense wealth in fire tokens, ending up with fourteen in her pocket by the time of the final playback challenge. Though she squandered her three advantage lead in the challenge she still won, reentering the game with complete safety in a bought hidden immunity idol that people like Sarah and Ben didn’t think she had. She would go on to find the next hidden immunity idol for safety in the final five, then would win the final immunity challenge to make the final tribal council. At final tribal council she proved she earned a little game-winning respect for how great she was at the EoE but it wasn’t enough to win over someone who spent 39 days in the main game, losing the vote 4–12.
Natalie made the final in both seasons she played in: a Herculean feat. Even more unique were the diverging paths of her final runs: one based in impressive physical prowess (Winners at War) and one based in a strategic hot streak (San Juan del Sur). Natalie is one of the most well-rounded players of the new school era, and maybe if her Winners at War game wasn’t so based within Edge of Extinction she could be ranked even higher than this.
6. Tyson Apostol
Season — Blood vs Water (Winner), Winners at War (11th)
Survivor Resume — The snarky Survivor legend. Running the dominant trio in Blood vs Water with Gervase and Monica. Marrying his fiance Rachel and being Dad Tyson on Winners at War.
Returning for his third season with his then-fiance in Blood vs. Water, Tyson turned down the chaotic villain a bit for a more calculated game. Early on his fiance Rachel was voted out, which pushed him to play harder earlier in the season. On the all-returners tribe he built an important alliance with Gervase that evolved into a larger “No More Loved Ones” alliance after a tribe swap. At the merge, Tyson and Gervase led a blindside of Aras that locked down a strong majority that also included Monica, Ciera, Hayden, and Caleb. That group rode the majority until the final eight, where Tyson was protected from a blindside attempt by Caleb with help from Ciera. Surviving that blindside officially secured Tyson’s safety up to the very end, though he was indeed tested when Hayden, Ciera, and Katie sent him to rocks where he had a 1 in 3 chance of going home. He survived the rocks and combined winning immunities with an airtight final three alliance with Monica and Gervase. Because so many people saw Tyson as the head of that three-person alliance, he was rewarded with a million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. Motivated by the early elimination of his fiance, Tyson put together a rock-solid, stifling strategic performance where he played a big role in the votes from the merge to the very end. He stayed a “villain”, though less fun then he had been in his first two seasons. But you sacrifice the hijinks for the win.
When Tyson returns for his fourth season on Winners at War, he’s a loving father with two kids and playing with that newfound fatherly wisdom. Unfortunately for Tyson he was immediately thrust into the outcast group from the start as old-school players were targeted. Tyson tries to play the self-preservation game, originally abandoning his “poker group” alliance and letting Amber go down with the ship, then attempting to get into Tony’s good graces as fellow players with big reputations, but Tyson rocked the boat too early with his strategic gameplay to be ignored by the dominant alliance and he is sent to Edge of Extinction, where he enjoys some peanut butter with a well-earned fire token. Tyson does reenter the game at the merge by winning the Edge of Extinction challenge, but once the merged tribe targets like Adam and Wendell are voted out the dominant alliance turns its sights back on Tyson, and he is voted out in a chaotic tribal council that Jeremy left and Kim tried to play her idol on.
Looking at Tyson’s last two seasons is when we get to see the snarky villain shine more as a strategist. He front ran his entire season on Blood vs. Water and built a strong enough alliance with Gervase and Monica that when he was finally targeted by Hayden and Ciera, Tyson could breathe easy knowing he built social connections that were strong enough to withstand immense pressure. Winners at War was mostly a wash as there was an old school player agenda that left all the legends voted out first, but because Tyson played his way back into the season he gets to hold the trophy for longest lasting old-school player in the all winners season. Tyson carries himself as a charismatic social player, and that hides how smart of a player he became strategically compared to the castaway he was in his first two seasons. New school Tyson was fully evolved, and much more lethal.
5. John Cochran
Season — South Pacific (8th), Caramoan (Winner)
Survivor Resume — The model for the Survivor supernerd casting, sarcasm and self-deprecation, flipping sides in South Pacific, clean strategy in Caramoan
The first true contestant in Survivor history purely based around being a Survivor superfan, John Cochran carved a place for himself as the nerdy, self-deprecating, yet cocky strategist on his tribe. He worried about his position on his South Pacific tribe as a physical liability but was able to make it to the merge. Once at the merge, he completely flipped the power of the game by switching sides to avoid rocks and enabled Coach’s alliance to wipe out Cochran’s old tribe, only for Cochran to be voted out right after them. His decision while unwise in hindsight was a key part to the game, and Cochran found popularity as a unique contestant in a fairly boring cast, which made him a shoo-in to return for Fans vs. Favorites.
Cochran toned down the outward nerdiness the second time around, and found great success in Caramoan from start to finish. He stayed safe in the favorites alliance for the first half of the game, then turned up the strategy in the final third, spearheading a lot of the final blindsides to comfortably reach the end to the game with ally Dawn and goat Sherri. Cochran won the season unanimously, with no holes to poke in his moves when compared to Dawn or Sherri. Since then Cochran has been a favorite of Survivor production, often appearing at reunions and even making a cameo in Game Changers, where he had a dinner date with Debbie of all people at Exile Island.
The impact of Cochran’s popularity and successes birthed the “nerdy castmates who knows everything about Survivor” casting archetype that you see appear every season. Very few Survivor players can put that on their resume. As a player, his second season is leaps and bounds ahead of his first. He had the strategic chops to compete with the best, as expected of a Survivor superfan who’s gone through all the mental scenarios in his head a million times. Socially, he had to learn from his first season, where his emotions got the best of him due to his general dislike for the more jocular tribe he started on. It clouded his vision and influenced him to forego rocks and become a 7th member of a 6-man alliance. He managed relationships better in Caramoan, which afforded him so many openings to sneak in alliances and orchestrate blindsides, while catching none of the heat.
4. Kim Spradlin
Season — One World (Winner), Winners at War (9th)
Survivor Resume — Leader of an all-girls alliance and dominated One World
Kim Spradlin-Wolfe’s winning season in One World is widely considered one of the most dominating in Survivor’s history. Early on Kim showed a measured intelligence and strong social presence to bring together a majority alliance in her all-women tribe that would enter the merge and pick off the more fractured men’s tribe one by one. She was the one moving the chess pieces while remaining fairly unscathed and off of other player’s radars, while winning a majority of the individual immunities to keep herself immune as the game entered its final phase. She brought her two closest allies, Chelsea and Sabrina, with her to the end and beat them comfortably. While the top to bottom skill level of the castaways in One World was quite weak when compared to other seasons, Kim undeniably shined as an all-around Survivor threat and fan-favorite of future players. And maybe even more impressive, she succeeded so fantastically as a first time player, showing Survivor skill seasons beyond normal rookie winners.
Kim returns for Winners at War and has to play a more reserved game right from the get go. Because of a past “poker table” friendship with players like Boston Rob, Tyson, etc. Kim was targeted early by players without the same outside relationships. Kim’s position was shaky until a tribe swap made her the swing vote and helped her find security in the game. At the merge Kim stuck with the majority alliance until she felt Tony’s power got too strong, but at that point it was a doomed endeavor. She looked around and found herself in the minority alliance, with little options to move forward. Kim put together a group to blindside Tony but Tony would win immunity that day, which left Kim completely exposed and walking out the game with her torch snuffed that evening.
As a player Kim has shown skill in all aspects of the game. Her social game was impeccable in keeping her allies in line with her in One World. Physically she won multiple individual immunity challenges over her time on the show. Strategically she has been able to eliminate the right people and make the right decision when she needed to. The only knock on her legacy to make would be pointing at the weak One World cast, but if you look at Winners at War Kim definitely proved she has the Survivor chops to play alongside the strongest the show has to offer.
3. Jeremy Collins
Season — San Juan del Sur (10th), Second Chance (Winner), Winners at War (8th)
Survivor Resume — Loving his wife oh so much. His alliance vs. Josh’s alliance at the merge in SJDS. Saved Fishbach with an idol in Second Chance. All-around likable dude.
Jeremy is a perfect example of a player who learned from their mistakes in season one and greatly improved their game when the second chance arrived. San Juan del Sur Jeremy was a strong alliance maker but overly emotional strategist. He loved his wife so much that it became slightly detrimental to his game, and he went from really trusting Keith to being completely done with over a silly hidden idol misunderstanding. He benefitted from a strong tribe however, and built up a large alliance with him as the figurehead. His figurehead status put him in a position where the first merge vote-out would be him or Josh going home. Jon and Jaclyn chose to side with Jeremy, but it was a classic example of winning the battle and not the war. His threat level was too obvious and his allies Missy and Jon blindsided him just a few days later.
In Second Chance, Jeremy was playing for his wife rather than with his wife, and that was all the motivation he needed. He built alliances again with other power players like Spencer, Stephen Fishbach (who he saved with a hidden idol he found), Tasha, and Joe without ever being seen as a high level threat. He had real say in the flow of the game while never being the priority target. The one time he was targeted he had an idol in his pocket to protect himself from going home. That’s a really impressive evolution from the player Jeremy was in San Juan del Sur, in a season where the level of play was so high.
The level of play is raised even higher in his next season in Winners at War, and Jeremy is able to respond to the vibe shift despite not holding as much power as he did in Second Chance. Jeremy suffers an early setback when he and his ally Natalie are targeted in the first tribal council due to existing connections (Natalie would be voted out first), but he is able to blend in with the shifting tides as the focus of the vote moves against the old school players. A tribe swap puts Jeremy and Denise in the minority group but the majority were at the very least more willing to keep him around over Denise, which didn’t matter because Denise played an idol on Jeremy at their one tribal council to keep them safe. At the merge Jeremy hoped to regain control of the game but the numbers shifted against him, climaxing in a key vote where Jeremy used his safety without power advantage to keep himself safe, but leaving his alliance out to dry. Jeremy played the self-preservation game from there and lasted a couple more votes thanks to Tony, while Ben actively plotted on Jeremy’s downfall. An immunity win by Nick in the final seven (pre-EOE return) left Jeremy with no more options, and he was voted out over Michele by a majority alliance that saw his final tribal council threat too big to ignore.
Jeremy has proved himself to be one of the best “alliance leaders” of the new school era. Jeremy is a player who is assertive enough to carve his own path in every season he is on, and does a great job of building trust with the players he works with. In all three of his seasons he found allies who are more than willing to ride it out with him until the wheels fall off (Natalie in SJDS, Tasha and Spencer in Second Chance, Michele in WaW). Jeremy is an adaptable player who learned from his mistakes in his first season to put together one of the strongest winning performances in the new-school era on Second Chance, and that earns him this top spot in my castaway rankings.
2. Sarah Lacina
Season — Cagayan (11th), Gamechangers (Winner), Winners at War (4th)
Survivor Resume — Cop. Overplaying her hand in Cagayan. Grabbing the advantage off the sitout bench. Finessing Sierra’s legacy advantage. Unbreakable alliance with Tony. Very serious.
Cagayan Sarah played an aggressive but naive game, and her hubris led to one of the biggest blindsides of the season. She made an alliance with Tony early on as the two bonded over being cops, which pushed her into the majority of the brawn tribe. A tribe swap separated her from her brawn alliance, but the new tribe committed to sticking together at the merge for the majority and chose to bring Sarah along over Alexis in the vote before the two tribes combined. Sarah found herself in a swing position, where she could choose to go with her new tribal alliance led by the Brain tribe members or go back to the original Brawn alliance she had. She levied her position hard, using the swing power to get alliances to promise to vote the way she wanted, and she believed she had all the power in the game. But behind her back, Kass had chosen to flip alliances because she was annoyed with how much power Sarah was gaining from her perceived allies, and Sarah ended up blindsided in a fantastic tribal council that would change the pace of the rest of the season. Sarah definitely came to play hard by building alliances, attempting to throw a challenge to vote out threats (if the Brain tribe wasn’t so miserable), and diving headfirst into Survivor politics. However, she left herself too exposed in the merge, and that social aggressiveness is what caused Kass to flip sides.
In Gamechangers, Sarah wanted to play more in the shadows and that is exactly what she did. Sarah kept in the background for the first half of Game Changers, and only really started to play hard in the post merge, starting with the blindside of Debbie. After the Debbie blindside Sarah did an incredible job of playing off of the big personalities in this returners season and building alliances that were strong enough to share info, but temporary enough for Sarah to cleanly blindside her way out of them. The best example of this was with Sierra: when Sarah learned that Sierra was holding onto a legacy advantage, she was able to blindside Sierra out of the game while still coaxing Sierra into giving said advantage to her afterwards. That legacy advantage would come in handy in the final six when it protected her from being voted out. Her social awareness was exceptional in the back half of the season, from navigating the social rigors of the game to finding the advantage sitting by the reward bench when no one else did, and she was able to beat Brad in the final tribal council, despite Brad playing in the front-runner position for the final third of the season due to his immunity challenge winning streak.
In Winners at War Sarah reunited with Tony and played a comfortable alliance based game, making strong connections with players like Sophie and Ben to move her forward with each vote. She was putting in work to appease the jury in her tribal councils as she played safely within the majority alliance, but was eliminated in firemaking by Tony in the final four before she could see the possible fruits of her labor. Her Winners at War game had similarities to Game Changers with a smartly navigated political game, but her seemingly unbreakable alliance with Tony left her looking more like second fiddle as Tony aggressively strategized in the post merge while Sarah did not. A Tony-Sarah final tribal is only theoretical at this point, but her passivity looked to be her downfall in season three, which is odd compared to her previous two seasons.
Even though Sarah isn’t a favorite of the Survivor fanbase, she has to be in the discussion as one of the best and most aggressive players in New School Survivor. Her aggressiveness in Cagayan backfired tremendously when her pushiness at the merge caused Kass to flip on her, but in Game Changers she mellowed that down to make her big moves in the background. Then she follows up with an unaggressive but clean game in Winners at War when the stakes are highest. She very much could have been a two-time winner if she won firemaking (though Natalie may have had better odds in that scenario).
1. Tony Vlachos
Season — Cagayan (Winner), Gamechangers (19th), Winners at War (Winner)
Survivor Resume — The Jersey Cop. Playing Survivor at a frenetic pace. Spy Shacks. Many blindsides and idols. One day alliance with Sandra. Near perfect season in Winners at War.
Survivor: Cagayan was one of the most chaotically strategic seasons of Survivor ever, and just about all of it was caused by Jersey cop Tony Vlachos. Early on Tony showed us that he would simply try to play the game harder than anyone ever had. On the brawn tribe he built early alliances with Sarah and Trish while being more than open to betraying them. More importantly he showed that he was willing to lie and say whatever he needed to get ahead, which will realize itself after the merge. He even built his “spy shacks’’ to listen into conversations. After Kass flipped and gave Tony’s alliance of him, Woo, Trish, LJ, and Jefra the numbers, the group dictated the vote outs, unless Tony got a little antsy and went for the blindisde. While Tony could have stayed firm in the numbers, he ended up choosing to recruit minority number players for blindsides of both LJ and Jefra, off of the rumors of the two possibly scheming against him. Tony was also a player in Cagayan who was always hungry for advantages, as he secured multiple idols (including a super idol) and chose to opt into drawing rocks for the Survivor Auction advantage, despite being in a pretty secure position. He reaches the end in a final two with Woo and ends up getting rewarded for his nonstop gameplay. While Tony undoubtedly played harder than anyone else on his first season, it was by no means the perfect game. His overactive personality and constant lying and scheming did not land well with players who were surprised how easily Tony could invoke family into his lies or didn’t understand why Tony felt the need to blindside them when there was no plan to vote him out. At camp his antics caused plenty of drama as well as he sparred with fellow castaways over trust and strategies, though as a spectator it is much appreciated. In the end Tony’s ability to lead Woo along with him to the end was a huge factor in his victory: while Woo was well-liked among his fellow tribemates, he did not play a strategic game that could rival Tony’s.
The winner would return for a top-loaded returners season in Game Changers, but the success he found in Cagayan did not translate. Tony was Tony right from the start, joking around about idol searching and building more spy shacks, but his energy threw veteran players off, especially Sandra. Tony and Sandra created an alliance that imploded immediately, and the super-strategist lost out to Sandra and was voted out second. People in Game Changers knew how threatening Tony could be as a player, and quickly disposed of him after he came out of the gates so strongly making a bad impression.
On Tony’s third attempt in Winners at War all the pieces came together for a fantastic all-around game and his second win. Tony laid the foundation for a strong alliance with his right hand cop Sarah and had loyal followers in Ben, Denise, and Nick. Tony won important immunities (4 in total) after the merge that protected him when the game was most volatile, especially when Kim had rallied a group to blindside him but immunity quashed the plans. Tony also made big moves when he felt his position in the game was threatened, and made a clean and season signature blindside on Sophie behind his alliance’s back. And even when Sarah and Ben screamed at him for doing the blindside against their will, they continued to work with Tony. Tony sat in the end next to two different games in Michele and Natalie, but when push came to shove Tony’s strong combination of alliance making, strategic prowess, and island likability earned him two million more dollars in the bank.
Tony can easily be crowned the most aggressive strategist in New School Survivor, and two victories gives the title of “King of the New School Era”. What is great about Tony’s Survivor gameplay is how it evolved into the full package by the time he arrived at Winners at War. Cagayan Tony had the strategic brain to dominate the season but his hyperactive and unpredictable gameplay was a noticeable flaw. That flaw was taken advantage of in Game Changers as it made Tony an easy consensus vote very early in the season. Tony learned from that experience and put together a near-perfect social game in Winners at War. He was a likable presence in his tribe right from the get-go, which made aligning with him more enticing. Tony was able to build relationships with Sarah and Ben that proved to be unbreakable, even when Tony actively went behind their backs to break them. But Tony went beyond just working with known allies: he was more than happy in both his winning seasons to bring unlikely castaways into his plans (Spencer and Tasha in Cagayan, Jeremy and Nick in Winners at War) without letting his strategies leak. Tony is the probably the most strategically flexible player in Survivor, and once he figured out the social game it made the man an unstoppable force.
Thank you to everyone that has read through all my blog posts and took the time to read and think about the game of Survivor like I have. As for what’s next… I think I’m ready to go back in time and travel through the early seasons of the show!