How The Rules Of NFL Survivor Pools Affect Optimal Pick Strategy

There are many different rules variations used in NFL survivor pools, and each variation brings with it different strategy wrinkles for maximizing your edge.

Different Strategies Pool Rules

Bill Bellchick knows you need different strategies and different hoodies for each contest (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire)

Standard rules for a survivor pool are that each entry must pick one team each week, and can only use each team once throughout the season. But there are many different rules variations beyond those basic rules, and each variation brings with it different strategy wrinkles.

While we’d love for our tools to cover every single possible rules variation, that just isn’t possible. For some rules, the types of data and considerations are diverse enough to make them almost completely different games from what we know as survivor pools.

Take Loser Pools for example. In this survivor variation you have to pick a losing team each week. While it would seem similar on its face as a mirror image of survivor pools, the tools and data would not be. This is particularly true of public pick data, which is a key driver of survivor decisions and EV. The survivor pool pick popularity data we use is from more traditional survivor pools that limit the use of teams who are likely to win, but don’t limit picking against teams. The opposite is true in Loser Pools, and projecting popularity is a completely different beast.

But there are plenty of pool variations for which we do provide customized advice. This post will go through some of the more common variations that we see, and how those variations impact survivor strategy.

All the strategy concepts outlined below are used by the logic in our Custom Picks tool. So when we say “You need to think about X”, what we really mean is “Let us think about X for you while you relax and enjoy the games.”

Pools With Strikes

Some Survivor pools allow entries to have one or more losses and still remain in the contest by exercising a “Strike” (called a “Mulligan” in some pools). This means that the results from that week can be stricken in the event of a loss, and that entry remains alive so long as a strike was available to use.

Pools that allow strikes can differ in how many they allow each entry before being eliminated from the contest. They can also differ in how long the strike option is available. In some pools, the strikes can be used at any point in the season. In others, they may be limited in use to a pre-set number of weeks early in the season.

Sometimes, pools that allow strikes use the number of strikes used as a tiebreaker in the event a contest runs through the end of the season. (See our discussion below on pool tiebreakers for more on this variation).

Strike Pool Strategy

The presence of strikes in a pool does alter the optimal strategy. As Miracle Max says, “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” In survivor pools with a strike available, you are just mostly dead with a loss.

That difference means that you should be a little more aggressive in trying to survive with less popular options early on, to build up a Future Value advantage if you win, while still having an opportunity to come back if you do not.

Strike pools should also generally last longer than standard pools of the same size, since entries have the opportunity to come back from a loss. That means that in similar sized pools, Strike Pools favor looking at Future Value a little more.

One other thing to keep in mind is to handle situations where the strikes end after a certain week, where you have yet to use any strikes and they are about to expire. If strikes used are a tiebreaker, you still want to avoid having to use one to secure the tiebreaker advantage. But in pools that allow strikes through a certain week (let’s say by the end of Week 5) and then they go away, and it has no impact on tiebreakers, you want to make sure to burn a team with zero Future Value, even if that means making a super risky pick. A loss doesn’t hurt you at all and you can only hurt your future prospects by wasting a team that you might want to use in the future.

Behind or Ahead on Strikes?

Finally, whether you are ahead on strikes (your entry has not used any while most of the remaining ones have) or you are behind on strikes (you have used strikes while some entries have not) dictates your best strategy later in the contest.

If you are behind, you need to try to avoid the most popular choices even more. This is because if you pick a popular team and they win, you don’t gain anything against a large portion of the pool, and remain behind them. If you pick the popular team and they lose, you are eliminated, while those entries who have not used a strike still get to come back and play next week. The only way to catch up in the strike column is to pick an unpopular team, and have your team win while more popular teams lose.

Conversely, if you are ahead on strikes, you want to lean more toward taking popular choices to cover your opponents, for the opposite reasons. If you pick the popular team and they win, you’ve prevented a lot of opponents from gaining any ground. If they lose, you stay alive while a large chunk of opponents gets eliminated.

Pools With Buy-Backs

In survivor pool parlance, a “buy-back” (or “rebuy”) pool is one that allows an entry to buy their way back into the pool after a loss, by paying another fee. Just like Strike pools, these types of pools can vary in the number of buy-back opportunities allowed, and how long into the season entries can still “buy-back” into the pool. Many, for example, will allow buy-backs only up until a certain point in the season, permitting only those eliminated early to regain entry.

Buy-Back Strategy

Strategy in buy-back pools is similar to strike pools. While many entries will choose to buy-back after a loss, it’s not automatic as it is with strike pools.

But generally speaking, the same philosophy of being willing to take a little more risk early in the pool (if you are willing to exercise your buy-back options) is true in Buy-Back pools just as it is in Strike Pools.

If you are limited on the amount of buy-backs, you also want to apply the same considerations on strategy when it comes to being behind or ahead on buy-back opportunities, and how that impacts the desirability of taking popular choices.

Pools With Byes

Some pools allow you to select “bye weeks” where you do not have to make a selection and automatically advance to the next week. While this rule means you don’t need to pick a winner in some weeks, just like in strike and buy-back pools, bye pools have different strategy considerations. That’s because you have to make decisions before the final results for that week is known.

It’s probably best in these situations to think of the bye option as another team, one that always happens to have the best EV for that week, but also by far the highest Future Value.

Bye Strategy

Here are a few situations where using the bye in a current week becomes relatively more valuable:

  • The top win odds options that week are relatively lower, and thus usually the overall expected weekly survival rate is lower
  • The public pick percentages are more heavily concentrated in 1-2 teams that week
  • Your entry has used the best options for that week and has a bigger dropoff in relative value

Those considerations can often conflict. Especially early in the year, the public pick percentages tend to be more heavily concentrated in those weeks where the top options have relatively higher win odds. That said, circumstances do arise where those factors can weigh more heavily.

Optimal use of the bye option may depend on pool size. Just as you would give less emphasis to Future Value in really small pools compared to large ones expected to go the distance, you might also give more EV emphasis on employing a bye earlier in smaller pools, and give a little less value to holding it for the future.

Pools With Multi-Pick Weeks

Some pools may require you to make multiple picks in some weeks. In these pools, all of your picks for that week must win in order for you to survive. The use of multiple picks is more often seen in larger pools where the number of entries surviving to the end might be high if everyone had to pick just one team per week.

The weeks in which you are required to make additional picks can vary in these pools. The most common method is using a set week or weeks on the calendar. But in some cases, multiple picks are triggered by a condition at a certain point in the season (You will have to pick two teams in Week 12 if more than 10% of the entries are still alive, for example).

Multi-Pick Strategy

Having to make multiple picks in a week can dramatically increase the elimination rate. So you have to plan ahead in pools with this feature, and have your Future Value lenses fully focused so that you are not caught unprepared.

The quality of your second option can make a big difference. Let’s consider a hypothetical where one entry has two teams with exactly 70% win odds. Another entry in the same pool has an 85% win odds team, but then can only use a 55% win odds team for the second pick.

The first entry would be expected to survive 49% of the time. The second entry would be expected to survive 46.75% of the time, despite having the best team available.

If you are in a pool that could switch to multiple picks in a future week, you need to adjust the Future Value for those future weeks to reflect the importance. It’s always important to try to save some high Future Value teams that most of the public has used for late in the year, when they will be unpopular and have high EV. In multiple picks pools, those considerations become even more important.

You know going in that you will need to use more than the typical 17 teams to survive a standard season, and have to dig deeper into the pool of candidate teams. That means you might need to take some risks earlier in the year to preserve that Future Value.

Playoffs with No Team Reset

Some survivor pools extend beyond Week 17 of the NFL regular season and into the playoffs. If the pool resets the team availability for all entries that survive, then you do not have to adjust your picking strategy during the regular season.

However, some playoff pools do not reset the teams you can use, which means you have to plan ahead to preserve some playoff teams. You have to intentionally hold out some of the best teams and not use them during the regular season.

Just as with multi-pick pools, you may have to dig deeper into the well of options. You might need to survive 18, 19, 20 or even 21 weeks of picks to prevail. This means that you will need to identify some opportunities in the regular season to use teams with low playoff probability as your survivor choice.

Second Chance or Late Start Pools

Second Chance or Late Start pools are simply survivor pools that start after Week 1 of the NFL Season. Some pools, for example, may have a secondary pool for entries that were eliminated in the main pool to join.

The strategy in these pools isn’t all that different from other pools. The primary exception is that the pool does not last as many weeks. With all teams available and fewer weeks to survive, you do not have to go as deep into the pool of potential teams as you might in a full-season pool. Further, with all teams available, the public pick percentage information is not as reliable when trying to project pick percentages in these types of pools.

For example, if your pool started in Week 6 of 2019, the availability, and thus future pick popularity, of several teams would be vastly different. The Patriots, Ravens, Cowboys and Chargers had been heavily used in standard pools. Their pick popularity in future weeks in a Late Start pool, though, would be higher since they were available to all entries going forward.

Tiebreaker Rules

Pools can also differ in their tiebreaker rules in the event multiple entries survive all the way to the end. It is really painful to make it to the end and then lose out on the prize money because you didn’t incorporate optimizing your chances to win the tiebreaker.

The number of tiebreaker rules used in pools are quite varied. Many of them have a random element to them, but others still allow for some strategy. Here are two of the more common ones we see, which we cover in our custom picks product.

Wins Tiebreaker

The Wins tiebreaker goes to the entry that used teams with the fewest combined wins during the season. This tiebreaker encourages entrants to take more risks. If you can have a few teams that you used finish with very poor overall records, you have a much better chance to win this tiebreaker.

In pools that use this tiebreaker, you want to try to identify choice opportunities where a team that is projected to finish with a poor record but nevertheless has a decent EV in a particular week. They don’t come around every week, but they can present themselves.

One example of a strategy decision in Wins Tiebreakers pools was the recommendation of Washington in Week 6 of 2019 against Miami. Washington finished the year with 3 wins. While they did present a little extra risk in terms of safety, entries that used that pick were in a great position in wins tiebreakers pools, as very few public entries successfully used Washington over the course of the season.

Strikes Used

In strike pools, the number of strikes used may be a tiebreaker. Under this tiebreaker rule, an entry that survived all the way to the end and used no strikes would prevail over an entry that used one strike to stay alive.

The presence of this rule, then, puts a little more emphasis on avoiding having to use a strike, than in a different strike or buy-back pool where it is not a tie-breaking factor. So while the risk profile in a strike pool is higher than a standard pool because you can come back, that is not quite as true in a pool with this tiebreaker.

Different Rules and Strategies Means There is No Universal Best Pick

We will wrap up our discussion of different survivor rules by noting that there is no universal “best” pick when it comes to survivor each week. The specific rules and strategies dictate that what may be the best option for one type of pool may not be for another.

The risk profile for a certain pool, the number of remaining entries, the expected remaining length, the future value of remaining available choices, and the tiebreaker rules can all contribute to determining the best pick.

That’s why our pick recommendations each week can vary from pool to pool. That kind of customization is also why our subscribers report winning rates in survivor pools better than the public, across a wide variety of rules and types of pools.