In 2006, Jan Merkel won Pro Tour Kobe, the first Pro Tour the aspiring German player qualified for and attended.
It was a "story of some super-talented person winning his first Pro Tour, which was unbelievable at the time," fellow German player Simon Görtzen, winner of Pro Tour San Diego 2010, said of Merkel's success.
In Germany, also in 2006, Arne Huschenbeth's brother introduced him to Magic. It was a world away from the competitive sphere Merkel was part of—and that Huschenbeth would inhabit a decade later.
"We played on vacations," Huschenbeth said. "We didn't know about anything like local game stores or anything like that, we were just little kids playing our 80-card decks."
Now, fifteen years later, Merkel and Huschenbeth are both days away from their first World Championship appearance—Magic World Championship XXVII—and their respective paths there highlight the shifting landscape of the German Magic community in the intervening years.
2006 was a liminal year for German Magic, kicked off by then-legendary future Hall of Famer Kai "the German Juggernaut" Budde's departure from professional Magic. Budde's success in the early 2000s echoed around the world, and his incredible seven Pro Tour titles—four more first place Top Finishes than anyone else in Magic history—in just a few years inspired players in every country.
His departure though hit close to home as it marked the end of a chapter in the German competitive scene. "When I was playing, I still saw Kai around a couple times, but he mostly had disappeared," Merkel remembered.
"The German Magic scene lost this anchor," Görtzen recalled. "He was such a dominating presence, and then maybe you still saw him at German Nationals, but he wasn't the same kind of juggernaut anymore."
"Kai is always looming over Germany in a sense," Huschenbeth added. "At least for me, he was this magical figure that, when I started, I heard stories about him. I grew up in Hamburg and he played a good bit of Magic in Hamburg, and so there were stories people shared about him and it was always this mystical figure. What an accomplishment he achieved, and can anyone ever get close to that? He is sort of the ultimate inspiration."
While it lost its anchor with Budde's departure, Germany still had a slew of aspiring Magic players in cities across the country, all eager to make their way to the Pro Tour. Merkel's Magic origin story is a familiar one, beginning with stumbling onto a Magic collection at a friend's place.
"We tried to figure out what they were about and play," Merkel said. "After we stumbled around a little bit, we researched—I don't know if Google existed—and then went to a local store, where the owner taught me."
The local game store environment proved key to Merkel's move from casual to competitive.
"There were some good players at the store who I looked up to," he said. "They were going to PTQs," that is, Pro Tour Qualifiers, "so I wanted to go to PTQs. The big thing was qualifying for Nationals of course, and everybody was preparing for Regionals, so I joined in."
Climbing the ladder of local-to-regional-to-national-to-international competition took time. With local game stores and in-person play being the hub of competitive scenes, a little bit of inter-city rivalry was inevitable.
"Berlin had a crew, Hamburg had a crew, there was a very good crew with André Müller from I don't remember exactly which city, Dortmund maybe," Merkel said. "There was always one PTQ in every city, so you would always try to steal a slot from, like a Hamburg player would 'steal' a spot from a Berlin player. The Berlin spot, that would always be a big fight."
When all of that practice, travel, and PTQ play inevitably paid off in invitations to the Pro Tour, those same local groups became a resource for preparation.
"For Pro Tour Kobe there was a very good group from our store and area that was qualified," Merkel said. "Jan Ruess, for example, who I played a lot with." Ruess would establish himself later in the 2000s with two Top Finishes, Pro Tours Hollywood 2008 and Kyoto 2009.
"We had a couple players, like four or five good German players helping us fill out to eight, and then we drafted a lot," Merkel said. "At least two times a week in the evening, with three to four drafts."
The preparation paid off, and seventeen-year-old Merkel won Pro Tour Kobe, his Pro Tour debut. When the victory happened thousands of miles away it resonated in the German community back home.
"I remember that my good friend Harald Stein, he told me about Pro Tour Kobe," Görtzen said. "Something I never forgot was how Harald came back and said the speed at which Jan was picking up things and learning facts about the format and how it all works was astonishing."
Arne Huschenbeth, whose own rise to prominence really accelerated in the past year and a half of online-centric play, seems to exist in a completely different environment from the one where Jan Merkel got his start. It turns out, though, that years after his older brother first introduced him to the game, Huschenbeth's re-entry into Magic and introduction to the competitive scene didn't stray too far from Merkel's.
"When I was like 17, this time with my younger brother, I went back into the store where I used to buy some theme packs back in the day," Huschenbeth said. "I saw the Magic cards again and bought a pack and opened it with my younger brother and taught him the game. I got really into it, and I found out about these local game stores and such, and me living in Hamburg there was one of those."
"I'm more of an introverted, shy person—or at least I was that way back then—and it took me a while to go join a new, strange place like a local game store where social interactions happen and oh my gosh, that's scary," he continued. "But the people were incredibly welcoming and warm-hearted, and I had a really nice time."
Once he'd overcome the hurdle of getting to know and getting comfortable with the local players and store, Huschenbeth quickly became wrapped up in becoming a better player and trying to qualify for the Pro Tour.
"I was lucky that there were a lot of motivated players in Hamburg at the store that would drive to a Grand Prix and take me with them. I was like the little kid," Huscenbeth said, "but they all supported me and believed in me and were super nice to me."
Like Merkel, Huschenbeth's camaraderie and practice with the players he met through his local game store created strong regional ties.
"I had my colleagues that I was exchanging ideas with, but it was regional stuff I would say." Country-wide, as far as Huschenbeth knew, there was "nothing coordinated, nothing structured, nothing organized."
That changed with Pro Tour Hour of Devastation in Kyoto in the summer of 2017.
"We had a group of ten people and we all got together in a house, rented that together, organized that together, tested together for two weeks, and that was sort of the spawn of a regular German team for the Pro Tours," Huschenbeth said. "From there on I moved to Berlin, and we had our little Magic community there. This community of Germans, it was definitely all over Germany. We welcomed everyone. We just wanted to improve everyone and build a community there. Everyone was motivated and happy to work and happy to put in the time and excited."
That November, Christian Hauck—a German player and regular in the Top 8 of European Grand Prix—had his Pro Tour breakthrough when he made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Ixalan.
"That was right after Kyoto, and I was like wow," Huschenbeth said. "The group and having that success together was awesome and inspired me to work even harder. We certainly saw a growth in people and in results, it was awesome to see. It was a new generation. I always look back at those times and start to smile."
Merkel noticed this shift when he attended Mythic Championship IV in Barcelona in 2019.
"Already I think the German community united for Barcelona," he said. "I got invited to test with them when they were all together, I think mostly based around the Berlin people, but they would always invite everybody. The city-based, that was more in the past. It seems to be more harmonious, and people seem to be nicer these days. In general, people are a bit more friendly and helpful."
In Barcelona, this German community of high-caliber competitors once again put a player into the Top 8. This time, it was Thoralf Severin—better and affectionately known by his nickname Toffel—and he ended up taking home the trophy.
In the next two years, fellow German player Kristof Prinz would win the Players Tour Finals, and Huschenbeth, of course, would make it all the way to Magic World Championship XXVII.
"Those tournament fruitions have come out of those two or three years of working hard together for the Pro Tours and creating this environment," Huschenbeth said.
The past two years brought many changes to competitive Magic and, with competitive play focused online, tournament testing teams became more international than ever. There's still a certain resonance though in seeing a player from your local game store, your town, or your country do well.
"With Arne there's certainly a vibe to him, even though I think, from my perspective, the sense of competitive community—basically the community that would meet at German Nationals—this is a thing of the past," Görtzen said. "And this means that I think there is an appreciation for what Arne is doing because of how he performs, and his work ethic is just incredible."
"I think we're in a good place," Merkel said. "We have good players, good energy, and I don't see any reason why we shouldn't continue to have success."
"You know, as you level up, [the players you looked up to] become a friend or a colleague or a competitor," Merkel continued. "I hope I can maybe be an inspiration to other young players that look into playing competitive Magic out of Germany."
After all, when Merkel and Huschenbeth take the digital stage at Magic World Championship XXVII there might be a kid in Germany walking into their local game store for the first time ever, taking their first steps down the same path that has led these two great players to the pinnacle of the game.
"What would I hope for the German community?" Huschenbeth asked himself. "Believe in yourself, work hard, and don't be shy reaching out to other German players. Reach out to me. Even if I can't work with you, you can certainly get information from me that will hopefully help you find other people to improve with."