As someone who has hyper-analyzed the Challenge for a long time, I’ve found that the format and organization of a season matters more than the actual cast. Final Reckoning and Dirty 30 have two of the most stacked casts in Challenge history, mixing up great old and new players. On paper, they should have led to excellent seasons. Instead, the game formats with too many twists, turns, and avenues allowing floating/boring gameplay led to absolute clusterfucks of seasons.
Meanwhile, you look at a season like Cutthroat, where the cast is rough, as a majority of the players were either scrubs or had some talent but didn’t have leading character potential, or hadn’t become it yet (Bananas, Cara). Yet, the season is celebrated from the rooftops by Challenge. Obviously, a good format and a good cast is what you obviously want from a show, but if you could only have one, I’m going with a good format that could make mediocre players look great. So I decided to rank the 5 Best Challenge Formats. Before I do, honorable mentions go out to the following formats:
- Free Agents
- Duel 1
- Infernos 1, 2, 3
Onto the list:
5 Battle of the Exes (1 or 2)
The simplicity of the Battle of the Exes format is what makes it so perfect. If your pair finishes in first place in the daily challenge, you win immunity, and you vote one team into elimination to face the team that finished last-place in that same daily challenge. The format forces everyone to try to avoid last-place, and winning gives you the power to potentially make a huge move, especially in the late-game, once the weaker teams get picked off. Likewise, the format also allows for floater/social teams to coast by, as long as they don’t finish last place in daily challenges.
It’s a great format because if an underdog team wins, they can throw in a strong team and not rely on a house vote. The negative with this format is it sometimes allows the veterans to coast too much early on and only make safe plays when choosing who to go into elimination. Then again, most, if not all formats allow for this type of gameplay. I will note that the Exes 2 format included a Redemption twist where after every elimination, the most recently eliminated team and the most recent redemption winner face-off for the opportunity to re-enter the game. While the twist had mixed reactions from fans, it was more from a perspective of it spoiling the game state for Wes that was perfect at that point. As a whole, it was a much better form of redemption than the Challenge would ever do again.
4 The Duel 2
The difference between the Duel 1 and the Duel 2 is that they had separate elimination days for men and women on the Duel 1. The Duel 2 is superior because the Duel commonly had players paired or teamed up during daily challenges, and it means if it is not the opposite players’ elimination day, they are more likely to check out. Besides that, the format follows has the daily challenge winners receiving immunity, and then they pick one person out of those who did not win out of the line-up and grant nominal safety. That person who gets selected chooses a person of the opposite sex to give the same nominal safety, and it goes as such back and forth alternating genders, similar to a school-yard pick. When only one player of each gender is left, they pick one person to face-off in elimination besides the daily challenge winner who has immunity.
It is the rawest and most hardcore format as it allows the person on the bottom to take their shot at anyone. On Duel 2, we saw Evan, one of the top competitors, got called into eliminations three times, and twice early in the game as players who viewed him as running the game and wanted to call their shot. You can’t hide in a Duel format. There is a social element as you need to have an ally or two or even more of the opposite gender to guarantee that they will call you out during the school-yard pick. An alliance of 4 to 6 people is even better as you can rattle each other off back and forth. The negatives of this format are that the partnerships for this season are not randomized, and thus two of the strongest players can pair up and dominate every challenge. It happened in both Duel seasons, and you can’t fault the great players for doing so; it’s more that the seasons would get enhanced if the partners were randomized each time.
I’m not the biggest fan of the Duel format as I prefer it when players can navigate the game socially and politically to the final, and the Duel does not fully allow that. Regardless, this is the format that so many players and fans have clamored for over the year. It’s the type of format that would get some OG legends interested in coming back.
3 Battle of the Seasons (2012)
When I first started watching the Challenge, I watched Rivals 1 and Exes 1 and thought they were “okay.” Then, I watched Battle of the Seasons and became hooked (which is vastly different than what the internet thought). The season did not have CT or Bananas or other stars, and it upset casuals fans, especially as rookies ran the politics of BOTS 2012. Since I didn’t have a tremendous amount of loyalty to those stars, I saw the season for what it was. A well-thought-out format with so many little details added to it that enhanced the season. Something not game-wise that I loved is that the players had their names arm-sleeves during this season. It was the smallest thing that made me go, “Wow, cool, I wish had a custom jersey like that.”
Onto the actual game format. Similar to Exes, Battle of the Seasons has it where the last-place team goes into elimination. The winners of the daily challenge gain immunity and the power to vote another team into elimination. The bonus that the winning team gets is they also get to pick the elimination format. There are four eligible eliminations (Physical, Mental, Endurance, Strategy). Once an elimination gets used, it gets taken out of the rotation until all four get used. The genius of this is that if you have an enemy, you can make it a physical elimination and put them against the biggest guy or girl in the game. On the other hand, if your ally finishes in last-place and you want to help them, you give them the elimination format of their choice against the opponent they’re most likely to beat. You also might pick the elimination format that you know your team would be the worst in so that if you end up in the next elimination, you will not be playing it.
Another element to this season is that the teams consist of 4 people, so they’re much smaller than most team seasons and bigger than pair seasons. Only two of your players enter elimination, and if they lose, your team continues as only two people, which has massive penalties and benefits. Some of the daily challenges were much easier with four people, but in the final, having only two people is theoretically more accessible as it’s less of a chance one person brings down the team pace. I would kill for them to do another Battle of the Seasons. The only major negative, in my opinion, is that the ability to chose the elimination is a bit over-powered, but at least it adds a strategy element.
Every time departure day for a new season happens and close to 30 people are on the cast, fans love to speculate that MTV is finally doing Cutthroat 2. While MTV refuses to do it, fans still beckon for it because the format rocked and brought out what, in my opinion, is the most overachieving season in Challenge history considering the lackluster cast. The game consists of three teams with ten players each. Old School Challenge Fans love big team seasons because that’s what they grew up watching. However, the two team format consistently led to dull seasons where the men became focused on “trimming the fat.” Which essentially meant bullying the women off their team. Adding a third team evolved the game.
For the daily challenges, one team would win immunity, and the other two teams would each pick both a male and female for elimination. The voting was done in secret to avoid players falling into public peer pressure. To dissuade players from throwing the daily challenges, there was a $20k bounty for each challenge. What’s funny is the actual final made it unclear whether or not trimming the team’s fat would be the optimal move as Abram, the best player during the season, had to quit the final due to dehydration. Cutthroat had a nuanced and straightforward format that mixed old school and new school Challenge perfectly. When I think of the Challenge, my brain thinks of Fresh Meat 2 and whatever happened before as a different era, and Rivals 1 and whatever happened after as a new world. Cutthroat exists in its own universe.
What keeps it from first place is that their teams got decided based on a race where players didn’t get told the last three to finish will pick the teams. The draft itself is a bit messed up since the player who has the first overall pick also picks first in every single round, and the one who picks last gets the last pick every round. In the end, the Red Team who got selected first won the season, the Grey Team who got picked second did the in the daily challenges (on the back of Abram and Laurel), and the Blue Team, who picked last, did the worst all season. If they ever do a Cutthroat 2, they have to fix this defect.
1 War of the Worlds 1
I love Fresh Meat seasons because it allows rookies to compete and politic freely, rather than have to be an amazing underdog taking on an entire house. However, the elimination voting format has never been my favorite as it consisted of a popular vote and had no punishment for finishing poorly in the daily challenges. The big thing that always bugged me is the random draft that shifts an entire season. War of the Worlds fixed so many of the problems and enhanced some of the existing positive features.
For starters, they had an opening challenge where how the rookies’ place decides their order in the draft, with the added caveat of last-place getting purged. While I’m not a fan of purges generally, it did put an additional fire under all rookies asses. The rookies picking their veteran makes more sense as most veterans had years of television experience to choose them based on, versus picking a rookie off a stat-sheet and a quick look. Even if the rookies don’t know who they are, the vets also competed in the same challenge they did.
In terms of the daily challenges, they had the Tribunal, and the way it got used for War of the Worlds 1 was perfect. The top three finishing duos win immunity, the power to nominate a team for elimination, and then the six total players vote for one of the three teams for elimination. That team then picks one team without immunity out of the crowd, duel style. Let’s dissect; while there is no penalty for last place, teams are still motivated during daily challenges as third and second place feel much more accomplishable than only getting immunity for first. The voting element also makes sense because the players earned their vote status, rather than in other house-vote based seasons where players get the right to vote for merely existing. Lastly, the ability to call anyone out for elimination allows you to either gun for a top player, play it safe, or get revenge by calling out the ally of the players who voted you in.
For the eliminations, they added the Relic twist, which gave the elimination winners automatic immunity for the next challenge. The Relic got created to keep from one player getting forced to go into every elimination. It was a smart choice by production and was, at times, used strategically. In a daily challenge, Hunter and Georgia gave up their shot to make Tribunal and handed the win to Wes and Dee because they already had the Relic, thus ensuring immunity for themselves and their #1 ally. Wes then voted in he and Hunter’s nemesis Johnny Bananas into elimination, to which Bananas lost, ultimately maximizing the Relic’s power.
Then we have the TWIST. While most Challenge twists are often shock-based and hurt the show in the long-term, the choice to split up the pairs on War of the Worlds 1 once there are only seven left made complete sense. I was never a fan of the fact that the partner you get on day one of the season essentially decides your fate in the game as those who got a late-pick would have to climb up the steepest mountains (kudos to Landon). One of my only grievances with the game from this point on was they split up guy and girl elimination days. I felt this was unneeded and only done to add an extra couple of episodes. The choice to make the final genderless was also unnecessary and would have had a lot more fans angry about it had Ninja Natalie not been the first-place female. Hell, if anything, fans were probably chuckling as the top three finishers got taken away on a helicopter as she is stood in the desert by herself. Nonetheless, they succeeded in making the hardest and most intense season ever. WOTW 1 rekindled my love for the Challenge with how well-thought-out it was.