You've got it the wrong way around OP.
Before catalog.neet I would never venture further than page 5 or 6, I would rarely go through every page but would get annoyed at seeing the same fucking threads I saw on the previous page if it was a fast board
And before /vg/ and /vp/ were made, the first 2 pages of /v/ were forever filled with generals, any new unique thread made would be bumpedmoff to page 3 within 2 minutes or so, generals amd pokemon dominated the front page and it was fucking hell. And then the glorious catalog.neet was made, but that was after the split of /v/ if I recall correctly. Hell if catalog.neet was made earlier I'd say that there might have been no /v/-/vg/ split since its utility would be needed more than ever and moot would probably have implemented internal catalog like he did about a year after neet catalog.
The beauty of the catalog is that threads are given more exposure, especially if you view with Last Reply or Creation date/bump order setting. And if you want your generals which used to inundate /v/ you just view by Reply Count, and even after the /vg/ split it's 10x easier to find a thread you are looking for on /vg/ with ctrl+f in catalog. Browsing the catalog can also give you a quicker overview about the state of the board as a whole and if it seems shitty you can still find that one diamond in the rough like an RTS or space thread on /v/.
So I disagree OP, the catalog refined the essence of 4chan.