The Best Survivor Players of the New Era

8 minute read

What qualities do we look for in an all-time great Survivor player? There are so many ways of defining “best,” and any list of all-star Survivor contestants has to contend with that task. The savviest strategist, the most adaptable alliance-builder, the most formidable challenge beast—any given winner of the game could have all three of those qualities, or none of them. Plenty of the best players, like Cirie Fields, have never won. Maybe the question of greatness can, in some cases, ignore game acumen altogether. A star is a star, and some of Survivor’s most significant icons are better known for what they brought to the screen than how well they played.

Depending on what kind of Survivor fan you are, it’s fun to dig into the complexity of the “best players” question—especially now that we’re five seasons into the New Era, a format introduced in 2021 with Season 41, and which continues with the premiere of the 46th season on CBS on Feb. 28. The game might not look the same as it used to, thanks to an overabundance of twists and the shift from a 39-day game to only 26, but the last few years have introduced enough enjoyable players to sustain a whole returning-players season of their own. (Sadly, the show is sticking with all-newbies for at least a couple more years, according to executive producer and host Jeff Probst.) These 12 players made a name for themselves, standing out for all different reasons.

Erika Casupanan (Survivor 41)

Deshawn Radden, Erika Casupanan and Xander Hastings.
Deshawn Radden, Erika Casupanan and Xander Hastings.Robert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

If Erika Casupanan’s win didn’t start the New Era off on the most exciting note, that’s mostly because of the season’s skewed edit, which didn’t feature her all that much before late in the merge. (Her initial tribe didn’t even make it to tribal council until halfway through the game, which made it even more difficult to center her perspective.) Still, even with that imbalance, it’s clear Casupanan played a deliberate, methodical game that the jury deeply respected: she made an unbreakable alliance with Heather Aldret, used the unpopular Hourglass Advantage to reclaim her agency in the game, and consistently worked to keep her visible threat level low. That’s why Xander Hastings made the fatal blunder of taking her to the final three.

Ricard Foyé (Survivor 41)

Jeff Probst awards the Immunity Necklace to Ricard Foye.
Jeff Probst awards the Immunity Necklace to Ricard Foyé.Robert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

For a long time, it felt like Ricard Foyé might win Season 41. His friendship and alliance with Shan Smith was the linchpin: together on the Ua tribe, they were the strategic powerhouse before the three tribes merged, with Foyé serving as a necessary grounding force to check Shan’s occasional overplaying. The two players never actually agreed to play to the end together—openly acknowledging that they’d have to go for each other eventually—which made it a tragic inevitability when Foyé took out his number-one ally and eliminated the biggest threat of the game. Unfortunately, that move made him the new target, and a string of immunity wins wasn’t enough to save him.

Shantel "Shan" Smith (Survivor 41)

Shantel Smith
Shantel SmithRobert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

Possibly the biggest antihero of the New Era, Smith announced herself right away as television gold: here was a friendly, charismatic “mafia pastor” who invented her own evil theme song to sing while plotting her manipulations. The production even scored the theme to accompany her during confessionals. It’s a shame Smith only made it to eighth place, targeted for her threat level and her possession of an immunity idol, but her social and strategic game were a marvel to watch.

Maryanne Oketch (Survivor 42)

Maryanne Oketch
Maryanne OketchRobert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

The second Canadian winner of the New Era (after Casupanan) sneaks up on you. Maryanne Oketch started Survivor 42 with more of a personality edit, focused on the ways her relentless exuberance and boundless energy started grating on her tribe early. Over the course of the season, nobody thought of her as a real threat to win, even after she orchestrated the blindside of her ally Omar Zaheer. She didn’t even need to play her second immunity idol, though keeping it secret paid off when she whipped it out at final tribal council, cementing her superior game.

Omar Zaheer (Survivor 42)

Omar Zaheer
Omar ZaheerRobert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

Survivor doesn’t cast many proper villains anymore, and based on this recent Probst interview, that won’t be changing anytime soon. In most seasons, the closest we get is a lovable manipulator with a great social game—someone like Omar Zaheer, the veterinarian whose ouster was the biggest moment of Oketch’s game. Zaheer was a serious under-the-radar threat, ingratiating himself with everyone while secretly masterminding several big votes post-merge. That all came to an end when Drea Wheeler publicly exposed his disloyalty and drew attention to his puppeteering, which put him directly in Oketch’s crosshairs.

Karla Cruz Godoy (Survivor 43)

Karla Cruz Godoy
Karla Cruz GodoyRobert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

Karla Cruz Godoy may not have fully lived up to her potential post-merge, with a few mistakes like a wasted idol play tarnishing her game. But she was an important part of the power structure on the Coco tribe in the pre-merge, building strong alliances with Cassidy Clark and James Jones and skillfully manipulating her fellow players while making sure she controlled the advantages in play. Her subtle, but strong social game was one of the best on Survivor 43.

Jesse Lopez (Survivor 43)

Jesse Lopez
Jesse LopezCBS/Getty Images

Jesse Lopez’s backstory set him apart from the beginning: after spending his teen years in a gang and going to juvie, he ended up getting his GED and eventually received a Ph.D from Duke University. That resilience and intelligence carried over to Survivor 43, a season low on exciting gameplay where Lopez strategized circles around the rest of his castmates. His alliance with Cody Assenmacher controlled much of the game, with Lopez operating from behind the scenes while letting his closest ally feel like he was the one in charge—until he blindsided Assenmacher and made two shocking idol plays, revealing himself as the biggest threat of the season. Sadly, his strengths didn’t include fire making, and he was eliminated before final tribal, leaving the unlikely Mike Gabler (the one winner not featured on this list) to take the prize with his unflashy “hiding in plain sight” strategy.

Yamil “Yam Yam” Arocho (Survivor 44)

Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, Yamil "Yam Yam" Arocho, and Carolyn Wiger at the final Tribal Council.
Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt, Yamil "Yam Yam" Arocho, and Carolyn Wiger at the final Tribal Council.Chuck Snyder—CBS/Getty Images

Survivor 44 was really the story of the Tika 3: a trio of scrappy underdogs who bickered and repeatedly threatened to turn on each other, but always came back together. Yam Yam Arocho was both the most dominant and the most widely loved player of that trio. Oftentimes in Survivor, playing with a big personality can be tough—but Arocho managed to minimize his threat level without ever disguising his own power as both a social and a physical player. From early on, he made it a point to target whoever voted for him, controlling a huge portion of the game as the outnumbered Tika 3 took advantage of the rifts between the other tribes. And Arocho capped off his story with a perfect, charming performance at final tribal council.

Carson Garrett (Survivor 44)

Carson Garrett and Jeff Probst.
Carson Garrett and Jeff Probst.CBS/Getty Images

You have to hand it to Carson Garrett, a super-fan in the mold of Season 26 winner John Cochran who became the glue in the New Era’s most iconic alliance. Garrett prepped for the show by bulking up and 3D-printing Survivor puzzles to memorize for the challenges, but he also played arguably the most level-headed, well-rounded game in Survivor 44. As with Lopez a season earlier, the final four fire-making challenge was responsible for Garrett’s untimely demise in the game. Otherwise, he would have battled it out for the million dollars with the rest of the Tika 3—and there’s a strong chance he would have won.

Carolyn Wiger (Survivor 44)

Yamil "Yam Yam" Arocho, Carolyn Wiger, Kane Fritzler, and Brandon Cottom.
Yamil "Yam Yam" Arocho, Carolyn Wiger, Kane Fritzler, and Brandon Cottom.Robert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

Probably the biggest shoo-in for a returning-players season on this whole list, Carolyn Wiger is quirky and distinct in a way that almost feels reminiscent of old-school Survivor casting—maybe because of the level of emotion and honesty she brings to her game at a time when shutting off your feelings to backstab your friends is typically encouraged. Wiger proves you can be true to yourself while playing a cunning, perceptive game—sussing out lies, planting fake idols, and yet staying loyal to one core alliance to the end. Wiger may not have articulated her strategy effectively enough at final tribal council, but it’s still a damn travesty she didn’t get a single vote to win.

Kaleb Gebrewold (Survivor 45)

Kaleb Gebrewold and Jeff Probst at Tribal Council.
Kaleb Gebrewold and Jeff Probst at Tribal Council.Robert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

Like Smith, Kaleb Gebrewold’s biggest problem was playing too hard too early. A social butterfly who never wanted to be tied down to just one alliance, his sheer likability made him a threat quickly—and his heartwarming friendship with financial analyst Emily Flippen wasn’t enough to move the target off his back. At least he managed to leave a big mark, becoming the first player to successfully save himself with a Shot in the Dark when his entire merge tribe voted against him.

Dee Valladares (Survivor 45)

Dee Valladares and Jeff Probst.
Dee Valladares and Jeff Probst.Robert Voets—CBS/Getty Images

Dee Valladares is probably the most dominant winner of the New Era so far, a fierce competitor who made most of the decisions for her tight four-person Reba alliance and confidently cut loose one of her own a few days before the end. Her rock-solid deals with both Julie Alley and runner-up Austin Li Coon ensured that Valladares was always in the know when it mattered most, allowing her the agency and flexibility she needed to make it to the end with the right people—even when that meant blind-siding her showmance partner Li Coon to take out Drew Basile, his other closest ally. Also, shout out to her famously big toes.

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