When I asked Conley Woods, longtime Magic funnyman, deck builder, and tournament mainstay, what he’d been up to lately, he said “Just dancing.” And he was 100% serious.
Conley Woods, the Worlds 2011 and Pro Tour Honolulu 2009 Top 8 finisher, and six-time Grand Prix Top 8 player, is known to the Magic community as a rogue deck genius. A man who moves to the beat of his own drum, using the creativity of the game to explore ideas and concepts others would quickly abandon. And a man who unceremoniously disappeared from the Magic scene after dropping off the train in Hawaii—the place of his greatest successes in the past.
Just as unheralded, he sauntered in Grand Prix Atlanta and began grinding it out in the early rounds—playing with only one bye for the first time in a while. But this looked like a different Conley—and not just because he’s dropped well over 100 pounds. He’s more at ease, and he’s carrying himself strongly and confidently; even though he’s still got that sportive Conley grin.
Where has he been? And what brought him back? Both answers are the same: Dancing.
“When I’m into something, I really want to be good at it. Woods said, introducing his new look. "I don’t want to suck.” And though there were plenty of things that Conley exceled at and was into, as we all know, running the Magic Pro Tour and Grand Prix circuit can get all-consuming. So all the other things he was good at, slowly turned into just Magic.
“Playing Magic [at a competitive level] tends to knock all the room out for anything else. You can’t just play for three hours on a Friday and not suck. You’re going to suck.” And Conley got very good at Magic. He was a consummate guest in the convention halls every weekend, and put up great results his own way—will cool brews, and unorthodox tactics that made other players look at him askance. He wrote articles for multiple websites at a time, even doing a stint on the Wizards of the Coast site. But as he put it, “There was a lot of pressure building up.”
“One day, I woke up and remembered thinking, ‘I’ve got something to do today, right?’ But couldn’t remember what it was. Then I got a notification on my phone that I had missed my flight to Seattle. It wasn’t that I was running late; I couldn’t even remember that I was leaving town.” This was a moment of recognition for him, even if that recognition came later. The Magic had consumed him, and he couldn’t even function properly in his day to day. The final bell came soon after.
“When you’re playing professional magic, you plan just for six months into the future, then another six months, then another.” He continued, “Then one day I looked up and said, ‘Wait, I’m only qualified for the next two Pro Tours.’” And when those two tours came and went without Conley earning another invite, he was off the train. Though Woods was disappointed, frustrated, and sad, he immediately saw it as a great opportunity.
“I really love Pro Tours, but the Grand Prix grind was getting to me. Not the game, but the travel. I was in my apartment four nights a week, eating whatever was around...[after Hawaii] I said, ‘It just feels like the right time for a change.’” So he took the time off he needed to sort his affairs. It threw a strongly positive light on a sad moment.
“After I fell off—I had been on the train for seven years—I could have been all ‘woe is me.’ But I wasn’t. I thought, ‘I’m 27, it’s about time to fix some stuff I’ve been putting off’—a lot of interpersonal stuff, and the weight loss I’d been meaning to get to, and stuff like that.” And he did just that. Conley Woods completely reorganized his life, inside and out. It all started with a simple gesture.
“A girl I was dating got me into the EDM scene.” He said, “Before that, I kinda looked down on that scene, you know, ‘It’s really simple easy music’ or whatever ... plus I hadn’t really gone to concerts and stuff because there’s always people dancing, and I wanted to avoid it because I sucked at it.” He laughed. “I was too competitive for it.” Like many of us with the Magic pull, being bad at something, especially something in front of lots of people, can be infuriating. Dancing was a skill Conley wouldn’t dare showcase.
“I’d literally never danced in public before.” He said. But because of this girl, he went to some concerts, and he danced. And he liked it. He liked it a lot. In fact, it became a new obsession—his new creative outlet to explore. As he gushed to me, soon he was dancing almost every night, and loved the freedom it provided. “You know how I build decks? That’s how I dance.” Just like expressing himself through cards, he began expressing himself through movement.
As a byproduct, along with the dancing came the weight loss. “I didn’t get into dancing for the weight loss, but it certainly helped.” He continued, “Sometimes I’ll dance 20,000 steps in a night. I’ll look at my phone afterwards and go, ‘Woah, I did ten miles of dancing tonight.” He barely changed his diet, but just the lifestyle change was enough.
That shift after Pro Tour Hawaii caused what Conley called a “cascade”—like a human Bloodbraid Elf. “Doors opened doors to more doors.” He started taking stock of what he values in his life, and adding them in healthy ways, after breaking it all down.
“I’m evolving into a much more positive person. I was naturally skeptical of anything everyone said ... but when you’re questioning everything everybody does, that’s really taxing.” It had been getting to him. But it took a grander life change, started by an insignificant invite to go to a concert, that added up to much more.
“You know, I looked at it all and said, ‘There’s enough [stuff] burdening me already. I don’t need this.’” He said about himself, “I’ve been transitioning and changing, and dancing is the manifestation of that.”
“When you’re in the zone—in Magic, dancing, whatever—you’re not thinking about anything else.” We all know that feeling; but it’s so easy to take that thing you love so much, and start to rip it apart, finding holes and tears that end up enveloping the picture you’d once loved. “It’s very difficult to be sad or angry when you’re dancing.”
It’s easy to change that quote to be about anything you zone with—especially Magic. Once you’ve got that passion moment going, everything else seems to melt away. We all have those stories when we’ve successfully punched above our Magic weight because we could do no wrong. But glory fades, and sometimes you need to change how you interact with that thing you love so it doesn’t become the thing you dread.
This simple opportunity, from a girl Conley no longer even dates, has opened up a whole new chapter in him. For him, the difference between 27 and 29 was a lot more than two years.
And now he’s back in the game. He’s streaming once a week, for about 5 to 6 hours, and he’s traveling again to Grand Prix events. So what’s changed?
“The big thing, was dealing with long-term planning.” He said, “I took on too much responsibility too quickly. In addition to the Grand Prix stuff, I was writing for multiple websites a week, I was doing the daily deck for Wizards of the Coast; it was a lot.”
“And the link between all my pursuits, is that they’re creative outlets for me. Doing all that stuff, I felt stretched so thin, the things I was doing were getting less creative, and less good.” Conley said earlier he can’t do anything he’s not good at. He needed a reviving. So he’s rejuvenated and ready to go, but he’ll be traveling less than he used to, and trying to make each outing an important one.
“[When I stopped everything] I kinda went cold turkey, which I needed; but I’ve been re-adding things one at a time.” But only things that matter.
The biggest thing that changed, he said: “Finding what matters.”
As we finished talking, a friend came up to Woods and said, “Conley! Long time! Whatcha been up to?”
“Just dancing,” he said. “Lots of dancing.”