This is a game for the diesels. You will catch up to the main bulk of the players, as long as you keep playing, and playing a lot.
And then there is the very top of the game. That you can only reach by paying.
Your realistic expectations, unless you pay a lot, are that you will progress over time, but it will be slow, babysteps. And that it will take a lot of playing, never missing a titan, an alliance war, a special quest. And a lot of building to get those training camps at lvl 20, so you can train with a small chance of recieving a 5* hero.
Initially you will think that summoning 4*/5* heroes is your bottleneck. Run your TC20’s hard enough for a long enough time and time will reveal that this is not the case.
Then you will think that obtaining unfarmable ascension mats is your bottleneck. As long as you play consistently towards maximizing your grabs at these mats, time will reveal that this is only partly true, depending on the distribution of these mats in color and the 5*'s you summon. For me, I’m only bottlenecked by these in yellow.
And finally you will learn that feeding your heroes to max level is what is truly stalling your race to power. It’ll keep you busy long after you’ve obtained sufficient lvl 1 5* heroes. It takes a lot, a true lot, of feeder heroes to max a 5 star hero.
What helps is that, while this dieseling will wear you out, it will wear out the current veterans even more, because they’ve been at it much longer than you. You can catch them up by mere attrition. By the time you will approach their strength, probably a considerable amount may have reduced their playing or even quit the game.
Also don’t give in to the Gacha too much. No, you do NOT need the current HOTM. You do not need Guinevere. If they drop for you, consider yourself lucky, but you can still wreck stuff with plain old TC20 heroes. Just play smart, get the right team, and play the match-3 like it’s meant to. Underneath all the ‘get this hero, fire that special’ is still the puzzle, the board with tiles, that you can ‘solve’ by getting it color sorted so you can move a tile and watch a long cascade of killer combo’s raining rainbow death and destruction on stuff.
The true inherent advantage of the early players might just be that they learned to get by without HOTM heroes.