Who is Paul Cheon? For the many that joined the game in recent years, it's a name that may not immediately ring a bell. Cheon's storied history brought him to the forefront of the game alongside the famous Luis Scott-Vargas… in 2005.
Cheon's story isn't just the rise of a contender, but one that's been able to do it twice over.
"It all started with Magic Online." Cheon began. Even his nickname, Haumph, began there. "I was trying to come up with a screen name for Magic Online. I wanted a nice one. I love to eat, and haumphing is something I do on a regular basis and it just took off. It just became a thing. It was just something I did for fun."
"Now it's 'I must haumph everything!' I can't stop, won't stop," Cheon said. "Even when I go on vacations I plan everything around what I'm eating. That's how much I love food."
Cheon is, of course, about more than great food and photo opportunities: He loves to play Magic. "After playing a bunch of Magic Online I thought I could try my hand at playing on the Pro Tour. I had only played online so I played in some Pro Tour Qualifiers at local stores and qualified for Pro Tour Philadelphia 2005."
That weekend in Philadelphia was a life-changing one for Cheon. "That's where I met Luis [Scott-Vargas]," Cheon said. "He was cracking jokes at me five minutes after we met. We became friends, I moved up with him, and we played a ton of Magic together."
The friendship was more than just having fun. Together they quietly grew in skill, leading up to their breakthrough performance. "It was the United States Nationals in 2006. Luis tried to cancel his flight for the tournament since he wasn't that excited, but the airline wouldn't let him cancel. We even switched decks right before the event, and we got first and third. It felt awesome because we were friends, but we were nobodies then. People thought we had a bad National team!"
"That started everything," Cheon said. "After that success we thought 'Maybe we can do well at the PT.' We started going to Grand Prix and had success. We rattled off a bunch of Top 8s, but I never did well at the Pro Tour at first. It took a few years but I made it back on the Nationals team and won Team Worlds in 2008."
Cheon's skill quickly grew, leading to one of his top accomplishments: a win while on the United States National team at Team Worlds 2008.
"After I won that tournament, I took a job in the Caribbean." Cheon took a different path than his fellow rising star Scott-Vargas. Unlike the Hall of Famer, who spent next several years building a Hall of Fame-worthy career, Cheon focused on other things. "There's five years where I'm just not playing Magic. I basically didn't play competitive Magic," he said. His skill, however was still lurking: "I played one Grand Prix in between, Grand Prix Denver, and Top 8'd that one. I had a great Sealed pool but I didn't know the Limited format. I was like ‘Luis, how do I draft?' Magic was a smaller part of my life. I didn't even have the Internet for a year! I got married. I had a child."
However, Cheon never truly left the game. "Ultimately we decided we wanted to raise a family in the USA and made the decision to move back. Right before I moved back I heard about streaming," he said, referring to the rise of players playing the game for audiences on Twitch.TV and elsewhere. "I thought 'I could probably do this. I like playing and talking about Magic!' I set my stream up right before Modern Masters. I was having a lot fun playing Magic again. Once we made that decision to move back, it was a given I would try to qualify again. I was like 'Let's see if I can make it back onto the Pro Tour!'"
Playing the game, streaming Magic Online for an ever-growing audience, Cheon ignited his fire for the game again and began playing with great players including, of course, Scott-Vargas. It was natural they would form a team together. Eric Froehlich, prolific competitor and one Scott-Vargas' testing teammates for Pro Tours, joined with the duo for team Grand Prix. PBO, the irreverent "Pork Bun Oath" had assembled and named themselves, not so ironically, after a Cheon's pork-bun-meets-floor-then-Scott-Vargas'-stomach story and, intentionally, as a nod to the powerhouse team of Owen Turtenwald, Reid Duke, and William Jensen.
It wasn't meant to be a serious name but they were still serious competitors to face.
They played together at Grand Prix Providence in 2013 and made it to seventh place, but it was in Portland where things turned. "Of course, Grand Prix Portland comes around. I am fortunate enough to be teamed with two of the best players on the planet and it qualified me for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir," Cheon said. Despite his team's finish in both Providence and Portland, Cheon hadn't earned an invitation to Pro Tour Fate Reforged. The week before left just one option: earn enough Pro points for Silver. "I had to win Grand Prix San Jose last weekend to book a flight for this weekend. It wasn't a very likely thing but, again, my teammates carried me."
Humble of his own skill at the game, Cheon was quick to thank his teammates for carrying him to the only way he could qualify for Pro Tour Fate Reforged.
Part of what makes Cheon so affable is his quick humility and honesty. While he credits his team with carrying him, his performance under pressure counts as well. "It's kind a funny because leading up to the finals I didn't feel a lot of pressure," he said. "I knew we had a good team and I just took it one match at a time. I had to win the finals so what are the odds? I had felt a lot more comfortable playing more Magic. The whole thing of feeling like a liability to my team went away. But when I got to the finals I felt it. I was playing against Paul Rietzl, a Hall of Famer and one of the best players on the planet."
For onlookers, it appeared as though Cheon was playing his match alone, but the ability to communicate subtly was a piece of their victory. "I was playing in the second game and up one in our march," he said. "I watched the video and it looked like I was the one making all the plays, but I definitely conferred with [my teammates] a lot."
"Our opponents were very smart, and Dave," Cheon said, referring to David Williams, one of the three of Hall of Fame player Paul Rietzl and Matthew Sperling, winners of the previous team Grand Prix in San Jose, "is one of the best team competitors out there. We didn't want to give anything away. I didn't have any removal in my deck, so we had to fight through Necropolis Fiend. "
Through the years, active and away, Cheon had never lost his passion for Magic. Rising to the top of the game and walking away is tough. Returning and rising again is even harder. Both times, it was the same dream driving him. "I did all sorts of things to qualify. I played in a ton of PTQs. I'm still shocked to be here."
"It's a lot of stuff. That was like ten years," Cheon said. "Now, I'm living the dream of being on the Pro Tour again."