There was no “couple year head start” in atlas. Please see this thread for a the timeline: Beta -> Atlas History. Additionally, it has been said many times that Atlas has changed a lot since it was released as beta
With the new 8k hats, a free player in the neutral zone could easily build up some troops. Build 800 troops 2x a day (once in the morning, once late at night). You easily get gold for this by doing your multis on mines instead of non-Atlas XP bases. This is 1.6k troops a day, so 11k troops a week. Pack them on your Fighter and travel through neutral until you find a territory that isn’t blockaded which has a player your level that you can hit. Ensure two people can fly with you and one can defend you as you attack. Hit the player once and then move on to a new team and territory.
As a non-beta player and as a leader, I rarely go “glory hunting” and just defending my team or push back invaders now and again and I easily have multiple prims, though they may not be a huge level.
Building is easy and takes like, no effort other than multis.