The expectation going into Winners at War was not that we’d be crowning a new Survivor GOAT. That was partially because Sandra Diaz-Twine has worn that crown for so long that she felt impossible to dethrone. But mostly it’s because the all-champions format meant that someone had to claim victory and join Sandra as the only survivor ever to win the game twice. While the all-winners theme meant that the level of competition was high, it also meant the winner wouldn’t have to scale the same obstacles Sandra did back in 2010’s Heroes vs. Villains.
Being the champion of champions isn’t the same as being the greatest. Amber Brkich wasn’t the greatest survivor ever back in 2004 after she won All-Stars, the show’s first returnee season. LeBron James wouldn’t be the greatest ever if he beat Michael Jordan in a one-on-one matchup today. Eli Manning isn’t the best NFL player of all time even though he’s 2-for-2 against Tom Brady in Super Bowls. And the winner of Winners at War was not necessarily going to be the GOAT.
But it’s time for a coronation. Tony Vlachos won Winners at War on Wednesday night, and that victory—along with how he accomplished it—makes him the greatest survivor to ever play the game.
Tony sat on the final tribal council next to Natalie Anderson and Michele Fitzgerald, and the three of them each perfectly represent the pillars of Survivor: outwit, outplay, outlast. Michele played from the bottom for nearly the entire season, but used her strong social skills—and a few clutch immunity challenge wins—to scrape her way to the end, mirroring her win in Kaôh Rōng (that she got zero votes in the final tribal this time around is tragic). Natalie was the physical star of the show, lasting an unbelievable 33 days on the desolate Edge of Extinction before winning her way back into the game—and finding an idol and winning an immunity challenge to guarantee her spot at the end. And Tony was the most strategic of that group, organizing numerous blindsidings and pushing boundaries of the game—literally.
That’s not to say that any one of these players was a one-trick pony, but in the end, Tony played the most complete game. In addition to his scheming, he had four immunity wins and built some of the strongest social bonds on the island.
Tony entered Winners at War as the longest of long shots. In his first confessional of the season, he admitted that he was coming into the game with a “big reputation.” That’s putting it mildly. After Cagayan, where Tony played like half a villain, and Game Changers, where his frenetic antics got him booted second, there didn’t seem to be much hope for a player like him to make it far in Winners at War. The champions of returnee seasons—and really, almost any Survivor season—have typically played more subdued, subtle games; as Tony said at one point this season, he plays “fast and sloppy.”
Yet in the end, Tony won the most stacked season ever without receiving even a single vote against him. It’s a surreal result, one no Survivor fan anticipated but all can celebrate.
With Winners at War now in the books, Tony completes a nearly perfect three-chapter Survivor career arc: from winner, to clown, to GOAT. His first time out, the New Jersey police officer came into Cagayan, Season 28, playing the game like a back-stabbing Tasmanian devil. He swore on everything—his badge, his honor, his family—and broke all of his promises. He found idols, he told lies, he built spy shacks, he made llama noises. He somehow incepted Woo into taking Tony to the final two, where he won, 8-1.
That one-of-a-kind win in 2014 is one of the most impressive single-season performances in Survivor history. Tony was a Survivor legend before he ever put on a buff again.
That type of gameplay shouldn’t be replicable. For a time, it wasn’t. When Tony returned for Game Changers in 2017, he was a disaster. Minutes after landing on the island, Tony told his tribe to “make nice nice” before he loudly sprinted off into the woods to look for an idol. He followed that up by digging a trench near the water well in an attempt to eavesdrop on conversations.
Everyone on Game Changers knew that they couldn’t trust Tony based on his Cagayan game, and his reckless start to the season didn’t help him. He was voted out at his tribe’s first tribal council on Day 6. At the time, that felt like the best we could ever hope for from future Tony appearances on the show: a few funny moments and an early exit.
Now, after winning Season 40, Tony’s brief appearance on Game Changers takes on an entirely different light. His implosion in that season allowed him to lower his threat level and play a subdued game for the first half of Winners at War. Tony began this season by joking that he was on probation. As he explained in a premiere confessional, he would wait around camp all day—watching as his tribemates slowly lowered their guards. Once it felt sufficiently safe to compete, “bang!” he said. “That’s where the sucker punch comes in!”
That sucker punch, such that there was one, came at the final nine when Tony went rogue from key members of his alliance and organized a masterful 4-3-2 blindsiding of Sophie Clarke. That move had everything: Tony won immunity, negated an extortion advantage, organized a blindsiding, and then organized another blindsiding. Sophie had shown her prowess this season; Tony’s last-second move to get her out beefed up his résumé and put him in the power position from that point onward. After that, he eliminated the single player who most wanted him out (Kim Spradlin-Wolfe), one of his closest allies but also biggest threats (Jeremy Collins), and another ally who he knew was plotting to eventually betray him (Nick). Tony now not only has two Survivor wins, but also two of the most masterful games ever played.
Despite keeping fellow cop Sarah Lacina—who has played with Tony on all three of their seasons—in the dark about the move to get Sophie out, Tony was able to repair the damage with his no. 1 partner in the game. Ultimately it was that friendship—it’s not right to call it just an alliance—that was crucial to Tony moving forward both in the game and emotionally. When Tony eliminated Sarah at the final four firemaking challenge Wednesday night, both left that tribal council in tears. Sarah’s own three-season arc is intertwined with Tony’s: Tony came into Cagayan telling his tribe that he worked in construction; Sarah was the first person to whom he admitted he was actually a cop—only because Sarah could just tell that he was one. By the end of Winners at War, the Cops-R-Us alliance that formed six years ago had become an unbreakable bond that transcends Survivor.
Survivor is a game about a lot of things: social politics, strategy, friendship, athleticism, numbers, etc. It’s also fundamentally about balance. Players have to find a way to walk the delicate tightrope of controlling the game without putting a target on their back. They have to go under the radar without becoming a goat who is simply shepherded to the end. They have to vote out their fellow contestants and then somehow earn votes back when those same players sit on the jury.
In Cagayan, Tony seemed to be way out of balance—which is why his win was so shocking. In Winners at War, he came full circle, keeping his awe-inspiring strategic game while building on the social and physical aspects of Survivor.
Winners at War was designed to be a celebration of Survivor. There is no contestant more worthy of celebrating than Tony. Survivor has a new king.