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Madden NFL 21 Ultimate Team guide: What to do first, how to get coins

MUT’s onboarding challenges are a fun and easy way to familiarize yourself with a deep mode

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey running the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders in Madden NFL 21
Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers is a coveted running back, whatever his rating, in Madden NFL 21’s Ultimate Team.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

If you’ve just picked up Madden NFL 21, consider starting your journey this year with Ultimate Team. You don’t have to spend a cent, or get beat up online by players who spend to win. It’s a great laboratory for testing out skills and strategies with a wide variety of players.

This first-things-first guide for Madden NFL 21 Ultimate Team will cover the best way to begin the mode, build up a good base of (free) currency, and then what to do with it.

Ultimate Team 101

When you launch Ultimate Team for the first time, you’ll be taken to Ultimate Team 101. These are simple, one-off tasks introducing you to the game on and off the field. They’re part of the Challenges single-player (you vs. the CPU) series and otherwise found under the Play tab of the main menu.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson juking a Pittsburgh Steelers defender in Madden NFL 21
Everyone gets an 80-rated Lamar Jackson when they begin Ultimate Team. Just remember to put him in at quarterback, he makes the early tasks a lot easier.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Ultimate Team 101 and the Rivalz set of Challenges are played at Madden NFL 21’s Arcade setting (the easiest of three) and at the game’s three lowest difficulties (Rookie to All-Pro). All of them can be beaten, easily, at Rookie difficulty with the starting team of low-rated players. But consider picking Veteran (two stars) or All-Pro (three) for the easier or shorter tasks, as the number of stars you earn overall will unlock tiered rewards.

First, though, make sure you open any packs of virtual cards that may have come with the game (if you bought one of Madden NFL 21’s special editions). At minimum, everyone gets a Superstar MVP pack that delivers cover star Lamar Jackson with an 80 rating. Set him as your team’s starting quarterback to make Ultimate Team 101 and the Rivalz Challenges easier. You can do this from the Team Tab of the main menu.

The Rivalz Challenges will, depending on how many difficulty stars you’re shooting for, take about an hour to wipe out in all. If you complete every one on three-star difficulty, you should end up with about 15,000 MUT Coins, plus a slew of free, run-of-the-mill level players to give your team some structure, thanks to the Challenge’s tiered rewards.

A glitched, blank menu in Madden NFL 21 Ultimate Team
Sometimes menus can straight-up glitch on you, like this. If so, your only option is to back out to Madden NFL 21’s main menu and start it over.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts via Polygon

Wrestling with menus

Madden NFL 21 Ultimate Team’s menus aren’t just slow loading, they’re very poorly designed, particularly for users who are not familiar with the mode. Here are some tips for dealing with the problems we encountered.

Dealing with glitches

Ultimate Team’s menu tabs can glitch on you, by appearing in sub-menus where the bumper buttons will not cycle through them, or disappearing from the main menu, which makes it impossible to get to your collection binder or the virtual store. You may have to quit the Ultimate Team mode, go back to the main menu, and restart Ultimate Team to get to the page you want, unless and until this is addressed by a patch.

Image showing Madden Ultimate Team’s atrocious menu design, which may have been designed by an actual four-year-old
At left is how the “Rivalz” series of exercises appears from the “Missions” tab on the front page. At right is how it appears from the “Challenges” item under the “Play” tab on the front page. Use the one at right to know where you are in your progression and what you’re working toward.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts via Polygon
Finding training exercises

Furthermore, the menus’ terrible organization make it hard to keep track of where you are in the Rivalz series of training exercises. To be sure you’re progressing through the right tasks, always access Rivalz from the Challenges box, which is under the Play tab (second tab at the main menu). This series begins with Ultimate Team 101 and ends with Championship: Rivalz. There’s a Rivalz series box in the Missions tab from the main page, but its list is differently, and confusingly, worded and ordered.

Another poorly designed menu in Madden Ultimate Team. This one isn’t as bad, it might have been designed by a six-year-old.
The team management menu isn’t intuitive for newcomers. Cycle all the way to the right with the D-pad, expand these icons into their command sets, and choose “Generate Best Lineup” to be sure you have the right personnel on the field in the early goings.
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts via Polygon
Making sense of the team management menus

Finally, the team management menus can be bewildering to first-time or casual Ultimate Team players. To put Jackson in at quarterback, or to auto-assign your best players as starters, cycle to the Team tab (third one on the main menu), select the Adjust Lineup box, and then use the D-pad to go all the way to the right side of the screen. That expands a series of small boxes into large buttons on that side. Select Generate Best Lineup (don’t worry about Team Chemistry for now) to make sure you always have the best players in your collection on the field.

Don’t buy card packs

MUT has multiple currencies, from “Training” to “Series 1 Trophies” and real-money only Madden Points, to unlock or acquire players and other cards. The free currency you earn by playing is MUT Coins, and 5,000 Coins will let you draw one randomly awarded “Gold” level player, rated 70 or better.

This is poor value for the currency you’ve earned. Such players likely won’t be as impactful as the ones you earn from these tutorial challenges. Your 5,000 coins are better spent on a specific player or an item you know you want from Ultimate Team’s auction house.

Furthermore, the “Recruit Your Team Captain” set of tasks in the Rivalz Challenges (they come after Ultimate Team 101) already give you an 87-rated player, at an impact position, to supplement Jackson. Choose the player whose position involves the things you want to do most (running the ball, receiving, or playing defense).

Pick up an Epic player

You can continue to grind all the way to the end of the Rivalz Challenges if you like, but with Jackson and a Team Captain (especially if it’s running back Eddie George), you’re probably ready to acquire a third standout, an NFL Epic player. Go back to the Missions tab of the main menu, cycle down to the NFL Epics, and decide which of the four all-time greats you want: receiver Larry Fitzgerald, running back Adrian Peterson, free safety Ronnie Lott, or defensive end Jack Youngblood.

Each player is rated 85 overall, and unlocked by earning 40 stars from 20 or so bite-sized challenges that award up to 5 stars each. Players earn one to three stars from the difficulty they choose (Rookie to All Pro) and then up to two stars for bonus objectives also reached in the challenge. After getting 40 stars, you have to complete one last Epic Moment challenge to claim the player.

Grinding through 40 stars for one player can take between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on the difficulties you choose. But they will also give you 500 MUT coins for each challenge completed, meaning that you can earn more than 10,000 coins by completing all within one player’s series.

Playcalling screen between plays in a Madden Ultimate Team game.
MUT’s early challenges are played on the Arcade setting (upper left of the score chyron). Use this as a chance to work on new plays, or go for the deep pass to get these tasks over quickly
Image: EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Go for the big play

Remember that, in these early Challenge and Missions series, you’re playing on the Arcade setting, which is less demanding than Madden’s Simulation or Competitive settings, and which makes big plays more likely. Play to that tendency.

Jackson will frequently spear your X receiver (the one on the far left) streaking down the field, even if he’s 61- or 62-rated, because the CPU’s low-intelligence beginning teams will leave him in single coverage.

You can chew off some big yardage running the ball, too, with the right play called and some common sense on the sticks. Wait until you see a running lane, and your runner is facing it straight ahead, before laying on the turbo — don’t just grab the right trigger once the ball’s handed off.

What’s next?

After getting an Epic player — or two, or all of them if you’re having fun with this series — finish off the Rivalz Challenges (again, from the Challenges menu). If you complete the Rivalz Challenge and pick up one Epic NFL player, you now should have a functional, 72- or 73-rated core Ultimate Team and a wad of virtual cash (more than 30,000 MUT Coins) to supplement it.

You should also have a strong idea of where you need better players the most. Go to the Auction House (it’s found at the Auctions & Trades square under the Store tab) and use its search filters to find a suitable player within your budget. Consider the seller’s buy-now price, if it’s reasonable, as it skips an auction process that you may lose and makes the player ready to use immediately.

You can also list any players you own for trading or selling here. But as your starting players are low-level, and you can’t auction or trade the ones you win by completing tasks (they will have a NAT icon on their card), it’s unlikely this will be useful until your collection has a lot more depth.

The team you have now still isn’t good for much online multiplayer other than grinding out some low-level games. But there are still series of Challenges and Missions galore to play, and the vast majority aren’t locked or gated by anything other than beating the challenge preceding it.

Big picture

One of the nice things about Ultimate Team is that its endless variety of personnel can get you to try different or more complicated things about football that you haven’t touched out of habit. Madden NFL 21’s staple Franchise mode is deep and enjoyable, but it gives you one club with static tendencies and strengths to play to, or try to change for the long term.

So use the solo-playing modes of Ultimate Team to develop your skills and interests in video game football as much as you do your collection of virtual players. In the early goings, don’t think of Madden Ultimate Team as a competition to acquire the best players, much less spend money on them.

Grinding through a Missions or Challenges series does not take as much time as you might think, especially if you’re having fun. Learn how the Run-Pass Option, or Zone Blitz defense, works. The simplest solution to one of Ultimate Team’s short Challenges is often the best. So, rather than hand the ball off to a 61-rated runner, use Lamar Jackson as a scrambling quarterback to run for the required yardage. Later on, you might want to draft someone with his skill set when you go back to Franchise.

Above all, remember that you can always have fun in Madden Ultimate Team without spending a dime. So if you do choose to spend money to acquire a specific player or fill another need, be sure you are getting strong value. Of course you know that you’re getting a highly rated player, but do you know why you’re getting him?

Getting the most out of Madden NFL 21 Ultimate Team starts with understanding your team, whatever its overall rating, and all the things your players can do, and then what you need them to do. Don’t just pick up shinies because they’re available, and because you have the currency — virtual or real — laying around.

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