If u got a superwhale, you shouldn't easily be able to defeat him if ur normal player. SIMPLE. Don't expect to beat the Emperor in a duel with JUST jacques.
Now, it may be a BIT to the pay to win, but with jacques, u can keep up, even without, JUST KEEP UP! Tons of players play for free, duel them, u dont need to be on the leaderboards. The Free to play players are about 5-6 levels below the super whales, so just duel at that level, DONT take on the emperor:
Simply, Siege, Fight, Play, And have fun at the free level with all the players, let the whales fight amongst themselves
How is it not pay to win when you can literally pay money to circumvent every single mechanic in the game? You can straight up throw your army at a full gold wall, pay linari to rush the hospital, pay linari to rush rebuilding the dead troops, and hit it again... over and over until it collapses and you get tens of thousands of rare RSS. You can also just buy shit loads of chests to have hundreds if not thousands of gold cap in troops, depending how much you feel like spending. The only way that this game could be more pay to win is if you could literally just straight up drop cash to instantly defeat somebody without even attacking them.
Also, not sure what server you are on, but virtually all players are level 40 on my server and the whales are still 40 or 50 % stronger and basically untouchable. Don't get your hopes up that this game isn't pay to win. It tries to trick you into believing otherwise, but the game will always revolve around the whim of the big spenders. Nothing that you do matters. You can just try to stay out of their way and pretend that someday you will catch up.