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The Magic of 16 Years

May 26, 2022

Jan Merkel rarely dreamed of winning the Pro Tour. Sure, the 17-year-old had thought about it as he began playing qualifiers and larger tournaments—eventually culminating in an invitation to Pro Tour Kobe—but even as he boarded his first flight out of his home region, Merkel wanted only to learn from his experience.

History, as we know, had other ideas for the young German. The 17-year-old would go on to win that Pro Tour in his debut, fighting through Time Spiral draft and his own nerves to exceed everyone's expectations including his own all on the way to establishing himself as a force in the European professional Magic scene.

Jan Merkel, Pro Tour Kobe 2006 Winner

Now 16 years later, Merkel is back at the top of the Pro Tour. His amazing run of recent performances continued at the New Capenna Championship, and with a best-of-three-match victory over Simon Nielsen in the finals, he finds himself as one of an elite club of two-time champions.

"I'm very proud and very thankful of how fortunate I've gotten in plenty of spots this weekend," Merkel said in the aftermath of his Top 8 run. "The money would a big thought at first, but it was really almost a relief to win when it ended."

His celebratory tweet was both punctual and pithy to victory.

His 4 a.m. end time of the title match added to that sense of relief, but Merkel's demeanor stayed as consistent after the final as before the tournament: that's how he's wired. In a world of online Magic events, he's found a perfect home in high-level MTG Arena tournaments. It's a long way from the teenager globetrotting while his mom checked in with his older teammates to make sure he could navigate the airports on his own.

One champion, with two championships a lifetime apart. On one hand, it's a tale of two Merkels. There was the kid who won his first Pro Tour in his first trip far away from home and set the Magic world on fire. In a game of young prodigies and ever-tougher competition, there were a swirl of unknowns. Was he the next Kai Budde to take over the Pro Tour? Was his win a fluke he could never hope to repeat, the kind of perfect one-tournament dream run that generations of Pro Tour players look back at with envy even after the competitor who accomplished it faded from the scene?

Those questions wore on champions before, doubly so for anyone who has experienced such success at a young age. The pressure of playing to be a Pro Tour champion and the pressure of playing as a Pro Tour champion again with his face emblazoned on a Magic card—as were promotional player card tokens packed in some Magic products at the time—are two wholly different circumstances. Some players more experienced than Merkel found that pressure too much.

On the other hand, the Merkel who won the New Capenna Championship isn't all that different from the kid who won Kobe.

"I view Magic pretty similarly now as I did then. Maybe the biggest difference is that I've definitely gotten better at deckbuilding," he offered when asked about the biggest difference in his game between now and then. "I spent a lot time thinking about Magic when I was 17, and that's the same as now." It's the kind of practical and straightforward answers one would expect if they followed Merkel over his rise the last two years.

It's not often an adult looks back on their teenage self and can say they had it together, but the same community that fostered Merkel's growth then is the same community that instilled the mindset that allowed him to add a second Pro Tour title almost two decades later.

"I was definitely in the right place at the right time back then in Hamburg, and my buddies and other Magic players gave me all the advice I needed," he recalled. "I was able to keep it in perspective. I tested along with many good and experienced players, so I knew how special it was: even the best players have maybe a 1% shot to win one when there are 300-500 people in the field."

"Talk to anyone who is good at Magic, and they'll say you can only excel if you have the right people helping you."

That's something Merkel demonstrated since his return to high-level play. While his tabletop Magic career never again reached the heights it did in Japan—at least not yet—he became a force in online play, teaming up with a handful of the game's most-feared internet grinders including Logan Nettles, someone joining Merkel at Magic World Championship XXVIII.

It may have been 15 years in between Top Finishes for Merkel, but don't call it a comeback.

"I would say it was a refocusing on competitive Magic events for me," he explained. "I've always liked playing online Magic over paper; I would always play Magic Online even when I was taking a 'break' from the game. Recently everything shifted online and that was really nice for me. I get exhausted when I travel and being awake at 4 a.m. at home playing is not as bad as being awake at 4 a.m. jetlagged."

The world around him may have changed, but Merkel is still the same player who collected a Pro Tour trophy and didn't let it define him or his Magic career. The perspective he had when he won Kobe stayed with him, and the few years haven't been about recapturing past glories, it's been about something much simpler—and fulfilling—for him.

"The system switching to online really got me thinking about playing competitively again, and really trying to see if I can hang if I give it my all – and it turns out I can," he added with a smile.

That much is apparent to anyone who has followed competitive Magic since 2020. Merkel announced his return to the pro scene with a Top 8 finish at the Zendikar Rising Championship to put his name back on the map, and quickly followed that up with a victory at the Magic Online Champions Showcase.

He saved his most impressive performance for Magic World Championship XXVII, where he navigated through a field of the world's toughest competitors en route to a third-place finish just behind the scorching-hot Jean-Emmanuel Depraz and eventual champion Yuta Takahashi.

If there had been any lingering doubts that the teenager who won Pro Tour Kobe was capable of playing with anyone in the world, they've been soundly put to rest as Merkel now adds his third major Top 8 finish since his return in 2020—his fourth overall—and now with a third title victory under his belt he'll enter Magic World Championship XVIII as one of the most accomplished players in the field.

"I was just a couple of matches away at the last World Championship; I was fortunate enough to play in it and I had a lot of fun and came very close to the finish line," he said. "I'm very much looking forward to playing in that, and I'm excited to give it another try."

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