I've never known the "old days".
But we have strategic opportunities to explore with this ranking as well. (Right now on my server we are pushing one city to 50, to punish the rest of the server and make them all start EG during the night, while our main city will start in the evening).
Opportunities exist, we simply need imaginative people to think of some new ways to beat the cities that stay purposefully at low levels.
The second place city came in 2 hours behind the first place city which started 4 hours earlier, however, had the losing city levelled up to eliminate the 4 hour difference, it would have been much more than four hours behind.
I will be interested to hear whether your strategy works or not. Tigerhawk has told me that she beat the very strategy you are employing by starting as the 10th best city. The city she beat had many endgame wins under its belt. Ever since, that server has been a race to the smallest city (and now a race to the highest ranked smallest city. It is rapidly approaching the 'all cities at the same level hypothetical' mentioned earlier.