Xander’s game and the change in modern idol plays

It seems to me that there is a transition taking place on Survivor in regards to idols and advantages, and I was very curious about the jury’s reaction to Xander game in Survivor 41. Since the beginning of Survivor, perception has dictated reality whether that perception is accurate or not. The interesting thing to me is how the jury perceived a player like Xander and how that perception may have been influenced by the way he used his idol and extra vote in Survivor 41.

To start, I feel it is important to state that I really enjoyed Xander and would like to see him play Survivor again at some point. If he had made a couple different decisions within the final episode, I think he may have won. He seems like a nice man and I believe that he was sincere in his bonds on the island.  I think his biggest flaw was that others did not perceive his bonds as sincere.

One of these people explicitly stated that she hated his face.

One common explanation for Xander’s loss was his age. While I admit that Xander’s age could have been a factor, I don’t think it was the solely determinative for his loss. I believe other factors like social bonding and strategic decisions (the extra vote, his fire-making choice, etc.) played a bigger role in his loss. Moreover, as this post will detail I submit that the growth in aggressive idol plays throughout the 30s may have factored into Xander receiving zero votes at final tribal.

Going into Survivor 41, I felt that the best-case scenario for Xander would be for him to be a more successful Jay Starrett or Devon Pinto. Devon was only 23 when he competed, while Jay was only 27. I concede that Xander would be the youngest of these three at 21, but I still felt there was potential for him to follow a similar path to those two previous contestants and win. Both Jay and Devon made very deep runs into their respective seasons and had serious chances of winning if they did make it to final tribal council. Xander would tie Fabio (Jud Birza) as the youngest winner of survivor if he had won. (Editor’s note: Also Sophie and Jenna. Of those three, you remembered Fabio?!)

Pictured: Xander. Devon? No wait, Jay.

Turning to the central message of this post, I believe that Xander faced an additional difficulty due to a changed perception of idols since Millennials versus Gen X. David Wright’s idol play on Jessica in the pre-merge of Millennials vs Gen X transformed idol plays in the modern era of Survivor. At that point of the game, David was an outcast on his Gen X tribe and while not being targeted in that tribal council, he would likely have been targeted in upcoming votes or in the swap, due to being a challenge liability. David did not appear to be in an alliance with Jessica Lewis and Jessica did not appear to have a desire to build an alliance with David at the time. Despite being in a safe position for the Jessica Lewis vote, David used the idol to save Jessica and subsequently secured an ally. The choice of this idol play is somewhat arbitrary, and some may refer to the Jeremy idol play on Stephen as the one which marked a shift to more proactive idol plays. The reason I focus on this move over the Jeremy idol play in Cambodia or the merge idol plays in Cagayan was because prior to the idol play in MvGX, Jessica and David did not appear to have any close connection.

“You know me, Jeff. Trinkets are my brand.”

I think that this idol play influenced subsequent idol plays throughout the 30s. Tai did not have a close game relationship with Aubry in Game Changers, but still played one of his idols on her at the final six. Aubry had voted for Tai in the previous tribal council and Tai would later vote Aubry out at final five. Even though Aubry and Tai had not been working together in the post-merge of Game Changers, there was a mutual recognition that eliminating one of Sarah or Troy was beneficial for their games. In David vs Goliath, Davie felt compelled to save Christian even though they had been on the opposite sides of the Jessica Peet blindside. Davie recognized that losing Christian would be bad for his game, even if they were not closely aligned at the time. In the same vote, Dan used his idol on Angelina even after he had some frustrations with her as an alliance member.

Yeah, Dan! Please!

This shift in how idols are being used is partially related to the increased number of idols throughout the 30s. David Wright found another idol the episode directly after he played his on Jessica Lewis and Dan had two idols when he played one on Angelina. Tai had found three idols during Game Changers. If more idols are going to be hidden and more people find idols, then there may be a greater willingness and potentially greater expectation for idol holders to play idols/advantages on other people. In this I do not mean to imply that Evvie, Ricard, or Tiffany did not vote for Xander solely because he did not save them when he could have. I tend to believe that Xander’s refusal to play idols or advantages for others led to a perception that he did not sincerely value his relationships with others on the island.

I don’t know if it is fair to blame Xander for not using his idol or extra vote to save the games of Tiffany and Evvie. He was able to form an alliance with Heather, Ricard and Erica that got him to the endgame and the final three. The big question is if Xander playing his advantages and idols differently would have changed his perception amongst the jury and if his perception was improved, was it worth the potential of being a bigger threat.

Proactive idol and advantage plays create the perception of an individual as a threat. Xander had to determine whether the increase in his threat level was a worthwhile risk. Would Xander have been perceived as a potential winner had he used his trinkets to save others? We can never truly know. Also, if Xander had saved others he might not have even been in the final three! At the same point, the perception of David Wright certainly changed after he saved Jessica Lewis with his idol. If Xander’s biggest difficulty was demonstrating that the bonds and relationships he was forming were sincere, then playing an idol or extra vote to save a person shows that you value them being there. Moreover, it demonstrates that you have agency and are an active player within the game.

It remains to be seen if this trend of proactive idol plays on other people who are not closely aligned with you will continue to influence juries and future contestants. These are high-risk moves and if there are fewer idols in future seasons of Survivor, I can see these types of idol plays disappearing. While these proactive idol plays have had tremendous benefits on jury perception for players like David Wright and others mentioned above, they have also backfired and sunk players- Lauren from Edge of Extinction is one such example. For a player like Xander, the risks outweighed the danger and if he wanted to win he had to play one of his advantages to save some of his allies. If other modern players in the 30s were willing to play advantages on people they had no allegiance to, Xander should have played his trinkets for people that he had some bonds with (e.g. Evvie or Tiffany), even if those bonds had been slightly fractured.