The season may still be young, but entering the Pro Tour it's Eric Froehlich who holds the lead in the Player of the Year race. The prolific pro and 9th-ranked player has turned in a blistering start to the season with a pair of solid finishes thus far; a Top 8 at Grand Prix Salt Lake City and a Top 4 at the team event at Grand Prix Portland.
That latter performance came as part of a team with the man sitting across from him: Paul Cheon. A fan favorite and former U.S. national team member, Cheon stepped away from the game for several years before returning last season with the help of his friends and teammates at ChannelFireball. Two of those teammates—Froehlich and Luis Scott-Vargas—helped to get Cheon back on the Pro Tour by virtue of their Top 4 appearance in Portland.
It was an emotional finish for the team—which had to go 5-1 on Day Two to make it to the elimination rounds in Portland—and it was something of a triumphant return to the Pro Tour when Cheon sat down for his first draft in Honolulu.
While his return didn't begin the way he wanted, dropping his first match and being paired against Froehlich in Round 2, his elation at being back on the circuit was clear as he took a moment to take in his surroundings in the feature match area.
Teammates, both in their Team GP Portland Top 4 finish and in prep for this event, both former U.S National Champion Paul Cheon and 9th-ranked player Eric Froehlich found themselves battling against each other early in the Pro Tour.
"I forgot what it feels like here," he reflected as he looked around at the network of lights and cameras around him. "It's so bright."
It was a fitting "welcome back to the Pro Tour, Paul Cheon" moment, and with that the friends and teammates were off and running in Round 2.
As is often the case in the Khans of Tarkir Limited format, the game began with both players morphing a creature on the third turn, and the two traded creatures on the following turn. Cheon's follow-up play was a Highspire Mantis, while Froehlich simply morphed another creature and passed the turn.
A face-down Abzan Guide would have swung the game, but Froehlich was only able to reveal a Sidisi's Pet on the following turn, far from good enough to match up with the Dragon-Style Twins Cheon deployed. A removal spell later and the Twins quickly ended the match in Cheon's favor.
Cheon 1 – Froehlich 0
Jeskai Student came early for Cheon to hold the ground, but a missing third land meant that Froehlich would quickly pull ahead in the Morph arms race. Luckily for Cheon, his missed land drop was somewhat offset by Froehlich failing to find a Forest to unmorph his face-down Abzan Guide, and the game progressed slowly for the first several turns.
Froehlich struggles to find his mana, but his morph creatures could swing momentum back with some timely land draws.
As Cheon began to find lands, he was able to stabilize the board and crawl back into the game even as Froehlich found his green mana. After an attack step that left the board at something resembling parity, Cheon faced the decision of how to buy himself another turn while he developed his board. The answer came in the form of Act of Treason, which borrowed the Abzan Guide to restore Cheon's life total and leave him with enough blockers to trade off his creatures and survive against a Witness of the Ages, a card he was holding a Burn Away to remove it with on the next turn.
The 6-damage kill spell is certainly powerful and in most cases would be enough, but one of the few cards it can't deal with is Ivorytusk Fortress, which is exactly what Froehlich followed up with. That was enough to earn the scoop from Cheon and move on to Game 3.
Cheon 1 - Froehlich 1
When Cheon attacked with a Seeker of the Way into Froehlich's Tuskguard Captain early, it seemed clear that he had a combat trick at the ready, sure to grab the early advantage if Froehlich went for the block or at the least get in two damage if Froehlich took the expected route and played around the spell.
Froehlich didn't hesitate to put his Captain in the Seeker's way, and Cheon sheepishly deposited his creature into the graveyard.
Cheon's bluff does not pay off.
In a game defined by a board stall eventually broken by an Abzan Ascendancy from Froehlich, the missing warrior turned out to be a vital turning point as Cheon couldn't keep up in the race and the Tuskguard Captain went the distance as it granted Froehlich's entire team trample on the way to the victory.
"My hand at that point was five land and an Alabaster Kirin," Froehlich explained after the match. "If I don't block it then I have to block it on the next turn anyway. Even if he had it, I had to call his bluff."
It was a gutsy move, and one that paid off for Froehlich as he took the match to move to 1-1 in the tournament.
Cheon 1 – Froehlich 2
It may not be the start he was hoping for in his return to the Pro Tour, but even after the match the always-affable Cheon was still finding the positives.
"We've been here a week prepping for the tournament, and it's great to be back," he said. "I played a lot and learned a lot this week. It's not the start I wanted, but I'm slowly getting back to where I want to be."