You'd be forgiven if you perused the standings and missed the name "Phil Napoli." But it's a name that holds a lot of meaning to old-school East Coast Magicians. The best friendship between Napoli and Grand Prix Indianapolis Top 8er (and Pro Tour Venice Champion) Osyp Lebedowicz has produced millions of behind the scenes tournament stories over the years.
The Staten Island native was an integral part of the TOGIT and Neutral Ground scene in the late 90s and early 00s. And though he's yet to achieve the high degree of success Osyp has, Phil has been a stalwart in the community from the early years on.
At Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth, an interesting narrative developed as the tournament wore on, and Napoli's name continued to rise in the standings. His best friend in the world just re-qualified for the Pro Tour just two weeks ago (while both played the same 75 cards), and now Napoli is in the position to do the same thing (also with the same 75, just in a different format).
I sat down with Phil after Round 14 and gabbed with him and where the heck he's been, and his recent success.
"I started playing during Revised, for the first time against my baby brother." A quite common beginning for a lot of us. "He qualified for his first Pro Tour before me; he was way better than me. I think it was Kyoto? But he couldn't go, ‘cause he was too young." Though this story happened over 20 years ago, it's sounds barely different than many of the stories we all have as newer players.
Napoli was a fixture on the scene after that, but after a few years, his name began to appear less and less and the top of the standings. "Look," Phil said, "I've always been a career-focused person. I've worked for 13 years at the same place, and that's always been my top priority." As his responsibilities grew, his focus on Magic lessened.
Still, Magic was always a huge part of him. "This," he pointed to the Grand Prix players behind him, "is my release." Then he smiled. And it's that idea that helped he and Lebedowicz forge their resurgence.
"Osyp and I have been talking," he said, "and look, we're getting older ... and so we thought we'd give it one more shot." It's a testament to both players' skill levels that they've already seen a good amount of wins in such a short time.
Especially because Napoli says he doesn't playtest, or really practice that much in a traditional way. "Yeah, sadly it's true," he said. But he does have a great way of optimizing his strategy to suit his lifestyle. As he started telling me about it, he pulled a notebook out of his bag.
"I write down everything that happens in every game. Everything. Every card, every situation. It's all here." He leafed through a few pages. "Because I don't playtest, this is how I learn."
He continued, "I only learn from my mistakes. I make a mistake; I document it; and I don't make it again." He summed this reverse playtesting by saying, "I replace repetition with intense focus."
This reinvigorated testing and Magic relationship with Lebedowicz has made Napoli that much more excited about the game. "We love to talk about the game anyway, and we love to fight about what cards go in the sideboard." He paused. "I won this one." Napoli smiled.
Though this was Osyp's first rodeo with Infect, it sure wasn't for Napoli, who Top 8'ed in Grand Prix Worchester in 2014 with the deck. Unlike most of the community, who are very high on the new tool Blossoming Defense, Napoli's taken a more reserved approach.
"The card is good, but it's not worth warping your deck around, because it costs colored mana." Though Napoli's playing two copies in the main deck, he still has a Dismember and an Apostle's Blessing as easier-to-cast options. "Although, [Blossoming Defense] does make Distortion Strike more reliable, because now you have seven spells to protect your creature."
But it's more than just Blossoming Defense. In the intervening two years since Phil's Top 8 some things have changed about Infect in the metagame. "I used to feel like Infect was the fastest deck in the format, outside of Affinity. But with this Death's Shadow Aggro, I'm not so sure anymore."
"I really don't want to play against it for the Top 8 next round." Because each match a learning experience, it takes a few matches before Napoli will feel comfortable against the deck. (Spoiler Alert: He got paired against former Player of the Year, ninth-ranked Mike Sigrist playing the deck. Eep.)
Regardless of how Napoli does in Round 15, it's clear he's having a blast being back. He was incredibly jovial and fun to talk to, and he's grown into the game in the last 20 years. "You know, having played for so long, I used to be caught up in what people thought about my play." He continued, "But I just don't do that anymore. Look, I make mistakes, I know that. But that's not what it's about for me ... That opened up my mind to being able to really learn from every game, and continue to get better."
This aged relationship with the game reflects in his long-term relationship with Osyp Lebedowicz as well, which has also continued to grow and evolve. "We've always been super-close; we've always been super-competitive. Now, he's family. Really." Napoli will be Lebedowicz's best man in the coming year, and they constantly text back and forth between every round. (And though I got a sweet picture of the text, Lebedowicz's words might have been a bit too clear. Double Eep.)
Though Napoli still gives Lebedowicz the edge in skill, he trusts his systems enough to eventually best him. "[Osyp's] talent at Constructed is insane," he said. "But after enough iterations, I can catch on. And I eventually started playing faster than him."
What is a fifteen-year Magic friendship with a little competition?
Regardless of whether Napoli requalifies for the Pro Tour this weekend, he'll be back at the Grand Prix more and more, always looking to best his best friend and text about it all the way.
Good luck, Phil.