In my experience you are correct that they nerved the amount of loot you can win. A few weeks ago I found lots of 300k+ bases and now I’m struggling to even find 200k. Even though just this morning I collected enough of money to upgrade my SB to level 4 (4.5M). I don’t know if I used a gold shield, but even if you are a free player (me, me, me) you can easily collect enough gems for the gold shield. Just win one platinum league and you can buy a gold shield for three(!!) days. In three days you can collect all the amount of gold you need for everything you want to upgrade and even more.
I just dont get all the free players that are whining at flare. You can win massive amount of free gems in game, they dont have to do that. Gems are really nice, but they are no more than a feature to make the game easier than intended. If you want to make it easier, win more gems of just buy them, but dont complain that it is getting to hard.