Guest Post: The Pitfalls of Managing Your Threat Level

Editor’s note: This is a guest submission from community member Other Scott (real name is protected for anonymity purposes… but is probably Scott). It does not necessary reflect the opinions of the site, except when it totally does.

In an interview with Dalton Ross about twists they’d like to see in the game, Adam Klein made a big deal about the fire-making challenge and how it gives an unfair advantage to those who did not properly “manage their threat level,” which he claims is the game of Survivor. “You’ve got to manage your threat level. That’s the game. That is Survivor and it’s a beautiful thing.”

For this article, we’re going to leave aside the most obvious rebuttal to this assessment: Survivor is an entertainment product first, and a game second. And there’s no less entertaining product than watching a lot of people try to manage their threat level.

We’re also going to leave aside what I’ll call the winner’s bias — after winning the game, the winner will often come to the conclusion that they played the perfect style to win Survivor, and will defend that style at all costs. Adam played in a season where there was a constant circular firing squad at the biggest threats, and by virtue of getting completely snowed early in the merge, Adam was not considered one of them.

We’re here to evaluate the idea of managing your threat level from a pure strategic theory basis. Is it the best way to play Survivor? Should you go out and try to lay low as much as possible and just work to take out every bigger threat ahead of you until you are the most deserving candidate of the final three?

The Goldilocks Conundrum

There is one major issue with the primary strategy of managing your threat level: the concept of a threat level is completely arbitrary and impossible to predict for even the best player.

I’m going to use some examples from David vs Goliath for a few reasons — it’s recent, so modern gameplay styles apply to it, and unlike a season such as Winners at War, in the mid-to-late post-merge, a person’s threat level was the primary decider of whether they would be targeted.

Let’s start with a couple examples of people who did not manage their threat level well. First, we have Christian Hubicki, who is a robotics engineer and talks like a calculator. The man’s whole persona oozes intelligence. In the merge episode, he immediately gets targeted for being the biggest threat on the David side. Christian hadn’t even done anything yet, it’s just his personality that had players considering him a threat. How is a person like Christian supposed to manage his threat level, short of taking a Polyjuice Potion and turning himself into Lisi Linares? It’s just not going to happen.

For our second example, we have the person most consistently targeted as a threat through the later part of the season, Alison. There were no moves or anything in particular about Alison’s personality that screamed threat. Players just decided Alison was a threat because it was convenient. So if Alison did want to use the strategy of managing her threat level, she completely failed, but only because threat level is often arbitrary.

On the other side, we have Mike White. If you want to talk about managing threat level, I would argue that no one in the 30s did a better job of it than him. He was in the majority for every vote (though some of those majorities were upended by idols and advantages) and was often the deciding vote for who ultimately went home. He managed to have no one consider him as a threat until the very end and got himself to the final four with players who not been seen as top players. He still lost because he made himself slightly too little a threat. So in managing your threat level, you not only need to play a good game while no one suspects you of doing so, you also have to make it so that you don’t undercut your threat level so much that you don’t get credit at the end. And all of this is not determined by some objective measure, but by the whims of the other players — which are inconsistent at best.

The whole endeavor is basically a crap shoot. If you’re too hot a threat with this strategy, you lose. If you’re too cold a threat, you lose. And the oven that determines whether you’re hot or cold is broken. As Mike White himself would say, “Good luck.”

The Next Evolution

Since season 33, the predominant style of play has been to target the person who has the biggest chance to win at the end starting at somewhere around the final nine. Players go along with this because they underestimate the players around them — all of them think they are playing the best game, while none of them think they are seen as a real threat. They all think they’ve been doing a good job managing their threat level. Almost invariably, they are wrong. They are either targeted as the next threat or get dragged to the end. By constantly cutting the head off the snake, they put their fate in the hands of the other players.

In season 40, Tony knew he couldn’t play this game. The most brilliant strategic move of Winners at War was the Sophie vote and it was exactly because Tony saw the writing on the wall of this strategy. For multiple episodes, Tony had been trying to get Jeremy out because Tony saw Jeremy as bad for his game. Then he gets his way and realizes absolutely everyone is on board. The alliances had dissolved and the name of the game was “eliminate the threats.” Tony at this point could have gone along with the Jeremy vote and tried to manage his threat level, but didn’t. He flipped the script, and kept the threat in. And then by the time Jeremy finally became expendable and was eliminated as a threat, Tony had a solid, loyal four.

Tony and Sarah both did not try to eliminate each other as the biggest threats. That was partly out of loyalty, but also because there are other ways to beat people. Sarah gathered as many social and personal allies as she could, in the hopes of gathering those jury votes at the end — I believe this tactic would have failed in no small part due to the massive Edge jury. Tony tried and succeeded in outmaneuvering Sarah in gameplay.

Very soon in the upcoming seasons, I believe an evolution in the game will end the “cut the biggest threat” roulette, because people will realize that they need the threats to stay. The problem is, if you keep the threat too long they could idol/immunity/fire-make their way to the end. For a good Survivor player, this should not matter.

Outplay, Not Outlast

If you truly believe you are the best Survivor player out there, and you should if you want to win, you should not be consenting to this game of “who’s the biggest threat” because that’s something you have no control of. You do need to manage your threat level slightly, there’s no doubt of that. You can’t be Joe Anglim out there (Editor’s note: For lots of reasons!). But once a threat is identified, and that threat is not yourself, that player is more of a benefit to you than a burden.

You have to believe you can outplay that person. You have to avoid the threat-killing game, you have to promote an atmosphere that values the threats as shields. And then you have to be willing to take that threat to the end with you if need be. How do you do that? You have to outmaneuver them.

Juries have changed since the game started casting primarily superfans. If a player has not been involved in a number of votes, that will cost them. In the past, people would vote for Fabio’s or Bob’s. The current contestants would not. The best way to neutralize a threat in the current game is not to vote them out, it’s to torpedo their game without voting them out. Keep them in to be a target, promote an atmosphere that values shields, and then show the jury how you’re better.

The most important thing in modern-day Survivor is control; you don’t want to put your fate into other people’s hands. Managing your threat level puts your fate in the hands of others to evaluate what your threat level truly is. Embrace the threats, embrace your threat level, and use your skills to outmaneuver those threats and show that you controlled your destiny, and that as a result you deserve to win.